The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
There comes a time in every filmmaker’s career when it suddenly feels like they’re coasting. They’ve made a name for themselves had some success and challenged themselves in one way or another so now it’s time to take it easy do what they do best and give the people what they want. Perhaps they’re taking a break before they try to do something big again or maybe they’re paying off the debt of a previous flop but the one thing they’re not doing is taking any risks. It’s the same-old same-old and while it might please the fans the real admirers probably won’t be pleased. It happens more often than we’d like to admit but unfortunately it does happen.
This is the case with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs the latest from the director who gave us Amelie Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (the latter two co-directed with Marc Caro). Those films earned him comparisons to Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton but Jeunet proved he had a unique and witty cinematic style that he could call his own and with the international popularity of Amelie audiences everywhere took notice granting this very talented director a lot of leeway to make films in his own style. With his next film 2004’s A Very Long Engagement he decided to stray from the style of his previous films and attempt something more dramatic and though the film was generally well-received Jeunet decided to go back to the well of whimsy with Micmacs with very mixed results. While casual fans should be pleased anyone interested in watching a filmmaker grow artistically (as Jeunet had been) will shrug and leave disappointed.
Like his fellow fantasists Gilliam and Burton Jeunet’s detractors have often described him as a stylist first and storyteller second. I’ve never subscribed to that theory until now — I always felt a connection to his offbeat characters and stories — but with Micmacs he either has failed to help us make that connection or he simply doesn’t care enough himself. Part of the problem is that the film hangs on the flimsiest of plotlines: Homeless man Dany Boon seeks revenge on the feuding weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine that killed his parents and the bullet in his head (a result a drive-by shooting) by teaming up with a rag-tag group of other homeless people all of them with their own set of special skills. A picture like this should hook us in from the very start or it’s never going to get off the ground and Micmacs’ opening already suggests that Jeunet isn’t breaking any new ground here; whimsy for whimsy’s sake will only yield limited results especially without a real story in place. Although it’s filled with a number of the filmmaker’s patented set pieces Micmacs is never as engaging as it would like to be. Numerous sequences that resemble Rube Goldberg meets Warner Brothers cartoons are definitely amusing to watch and offer some trademark Jeunet imagery but there’s no reason to care about what we’re seeing. Boon’s plight should be a moving one but for Jeunet it feels more like an excuse to shoot his regular co-star Dominique Pinon out of a giant cannon.
Pinon’s presence represents another problem with Micmacs: although the film is very well cast almost none of these characters register with the audience. Boon’s homeless “family” is filled with faces out of the Jeunet central casting book but we never really learn who they are nor do we understand why they follow Boon’s character through the lengths that they do. Just because they’re “characters” doesn’t really give them character to portray and though the film is energetically performed by all (with special recognition going to the charming Marie-Julie Baup) they’re just figures for Jeunet’s giant Parisian play set. There’s no question that there are certain pleasures to be found in Micmacs; it looks wonderful with some great production design and cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata and Jeunet’s use of classic Max Steiner music definitely adds to the fun. But these enjoyments are really surface-level only and the film doesn’t have enough weight to hold them up. I certainly wanted to like this one more than I did and I’m sure many of you will disagree with my assessment and enjoy yourselves anyway but Micmacs ultimately isn’t the best example of what Jean-Pierre Jeunet is capable of.