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.
I Am Number Four a sci-fi action drama from D.J. Caruso (Disturbia Eagle Eye) about a teenage alien’s earthly travails has the look and feel of a CW series – i.e. lots of attractive young people some of whom possess supernatural abilities and superhuman amounts of angst and alienation. This is not a coincidence: Two of its screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar happen to be the creators and executive producers of Smallville a series chronicling Superman’s youthful pre-Metropolis years that’s now in its tenth and final season on the CW. (The script is adapted from a novel by Pittacus Lore.)
Unlike Smallville’s solitary Kryptonian I Am Number Four’s hero is not alone. Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is one of nine gifted residents (each branded with a number for reasons not sufficiently explained in the film) from the planet Lorien who fled to Earth after their civilization was annihilated by the Mogadorians a race of mumbly trenchcoat-clad goons with tattooed scalps hell-bent on ridding the universe of its water polo players. (Indeed Pettyfer’s hair in the film perpetually bears that fresh-out-of-the-water look common also to surfers and lifeguards.) Together with his anointed guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) he travels from small town to small town adopting assumed names and trying to keep a low profile so as to avoid detection by the Mogadorians who have followed the Loriens to earth to finish the job.
I Am Number Four skillfully mines much of the same emotional territory of the Twilight saga and its variants albeit from a slightly geekier less melodramatic more male-oriented angle. (Michael Bay produced the film.) Four’s itinerant lifestyle and otherworldly heritage make the adolescent struggle to fit in all the more difficult; he’s anti-social broods a lot and acts out toward Henri telekinetically. (Kudos to Caruso for the unorthodox but effective choice of Olyphant a guy who always looks to me as if he’s about to stab someone as the father-figure). This is likely because Four is in the middle of that awkward alien superhero stage: special powers like hands that glow brightly and emit beams of energy spontaneously reveal themselves at inopportune times causing him to flee from physics class mortified. Pettyfer's really got the tormented bit down; if he can master a few more expressions he's really gonna go places.
Despite these difficult public moments and despite Henri’s repeated warnings to avoid earthly relationships Four manages to strike up an inter-species romance with fellow attractive outcast Sarah (Glee's Dianna Agron) Bella Swan’s blonde equivalent a former cheerleader who has since disavowed her popular-girl past. This in turn invites the fury of Sarah’s former boyfriend and current stalker a bullying jock named Mark (Jake Abel).
Soon however Four’s rites of adolescence must take a backseat to the more pressing matter of defending his species – and his adopted planet – from the Mogadorians who’ve tracked him to his Paradise Ohio location via that advanced alien technology known as YouTube. An apocalyptic battle set at Four’s high school ensues during which he is joined by a fellow Lorien Number Six (Teresa Palmer) a hot-blooded Aussie biker chick whose powers include the ability to communicate exclusively in double entendres. Four is also aided by Sarah a UFO-obsessed sidekick (Callan McAuliffe) and a shape-shifting puppy.
I Am Number Four’s climax largely abandons its appealing Smallville ethos for something more suitable of a film bearing the name of Michael Bay but made with a fraction of the effects budget. The orgy of destruction involving CGI beasts and laser guns and explosions and tons of acrobatic stuntwork comes off a tad cheap if not a little tacky. Hopefully the filmmakers will get a bit more cash to make the sequel which I Am Number Four's ending rather blatantly labors to set up.
When a movie gets knocked around from one crummy release date to another one would assume that it is pretty awful. However even I a knowledgeable and open-minded film geek wasn’t prepared for the monstrosity that is Season of the Witch a medieval mess that has reportedly been in the works for a decade. You’d never be able to tell so many years of preparation went into this sad excuse for a B-movie based on its laughable CGI dialogue and contrived premise. How many flavors of bad is this supernatural stinker? Sample this…
A period horror action flick Season of the Witch is initially set in a cursed city suffering from the Black Plague that has deformed and decimated the majority of its population. The disease has been unleashed as a result of a literal witch-hunt gone wrong. Ancient evil forces are afoot and the blame is put on a young girl who the Church believes is a witch. Though imprisoned in the dungeons of a castle her power reigns supreme. Enter Behman (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) Knights of the Crusades who happen upon the city on their way back to civilization. Once recognized as deserters they are imprisoned and given the choice to remain captive or lead a suicide transport mission to a remote monastery where the girl’s innocence or guilt can be determined. If deemed evil she is to be destroyed.
The premise though far from original could have been cool if executed with some style but director Dominic Sena (Gone In Sixty Seconds) is incapable of making it enjoyable. Instead of creating suspense through eerie environments he settles for cheap thrills that fall short every time. His use of CGI is painfully bad conjuring effects that would’ve looked dated around the turn of the century. Most insulting is the film’s big “twist” - a lazy paradigm shift so easily foreseeable the movie should have just been called The Devil’s Advocate. Is that not bad enough for you? Just wait it gets better (read: worse).
Stars Cage and Perlman are Razzie bound with a pair of pathetic non-performances. The accomplished actors don’t even try to get into character. Rather they don period garb shield and sword and run around like cheap imitations of their former selves for two hours. You won’t hear any attempts at English accents because apparently 14th Century Knights are just like contemporary buddy cops. With this little effort being put forth by the two men who are essentially the reason folks will pay to see the movie Season of the Witch doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on. The supporting cast which includes Ulrich Thomsen Stephen Graham and Christopher Lee try to bear the burden but cannot undo the damage that Cage and Perlman inflict upon this film. The scariest thing about Season of the Witch is the movie itself an abomination of bad filmmaking and terrible acting.
I struggle to think of another ‘80s film icon that has endured as strongly as the Predator despite only having been in a single good film. That’s not so much a dig on how bad Predator 2 and the pair of Alien Vs. Predator films are (though all three are certainly worth the derision) as it is a testament to how good the character is. His origins are an enigma but his motivations require no grand backstory: He’s an alien hunter who likes to keep the skulls of his prey as trophies. It’s simple really. And that’s why Predators the two-decades late sequel that should-have-been instead of the previous trio of disappointments works as well as it does.
Director Nimrod Antal and screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch have cut out all distractions all the fruitless complications most sequels experience as they try to overly explain any unanswered questions from the first film. Their story ignites with a bang and shows no immediate signs of pausing for needless introspection. Predators opens with Adrien Brody’s character falling from the sky into an unknown jungle where he meets up with a handful of fellow air-dropped jarheads each as equally confused as to what’s going on as the next. The audience knows exactly what’s going on though. They a collective sampling of Earth’s most lethal badasses have been parachuted onto an alien game preserve for the hunting pleasures of the Predators.
The first 30 or so minutes of the film are a much-needed refresher course on not only how to do ensemble-based action movies but how to make a film that cashes in on a previous phenomenon without betraying the people who made it a phenomenon in the first place. We know just enough about the characters to let our own real-world instincts fill in any of the gaps. And since we know the Predators are out in the jungle patiently stalking Brody and his defacto gang of killers there is also no need to de-cloak the alien killers prematurely. The result is an exciting feels-like-the-good-ole-days start to a movie that is constantly on its toes as it pits the group against a host of interesting challenges the Predators’ planet has to offer both old (elaborate hand-made traps) and new (they aren’t the only dangerous things the Preds dropped in by parachute).
However that is only the first 30 or so minutes of the film. Sadly around a third of the way through Antal and company have reached their cruising speed and from there on out Predators enters a predictable trajectory that doesn’t really aspire to introduce and explore more of the Predator world. For sake of keeping this review spoiler-free I’ll leave out the specifics but a plot device is introduced that promises to be yet another wild-card for the movie but it just shows up pauses to provide unnecessary exposition and then disappears. Unfortunately the momentum of the movie never fully recovers from this small but crucial misstep.
When it’s on fire though Predators is a total blast of all the extreme machismo and action-movie staples that made John McTiernan’s original such a seminal entry in both the sci-fi and action canons of cinema. Antal really knows how to balance an ensemble cast giving each character enough screen time to be memorable for one reason or another be it the weapon they carry or the lines they deliver lines seemingly engineered to be as quotable as possible (Walton Goggins’ dialog alone is reason enough to like the movie). And he also has great instincts for how to maximize the scale and scope of set pieces transforming jungle that is claustrophobic in one scene into a landscape so sprawling it seems like it could never be escaped in another.
That said even with a film that is significantly more exciting in the beginning than it is in the end a movie that is one-third great and roughly two-thirds above average isn’t exactly something to be angry about. Especially not in this summer’s current film climate where most releases have been unilaterally bad. It’s just unfortunate that Predators’ pacing problems later on the film give one’s mind plenty of time to wander to start to notice the gaps in the characters and internal logic within the script. Those are things you never really want to spend time examining in any action movie let alone a Predator movie. Had it come out when it was originally conceived by Robert Rodriguez over fifteen years ago it would have been perfect for the time period. All these years later though one must wonder how all those uneven spots weren’t ironed out in the intervening time. But all things considered this is unmistakably a Predator movie and to that end Predators is a faithful respectful hat tip to a franchise loved the world over.