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.
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Awards season is in full swing, and with tonight's Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG for short) — the 19th time the ceremony has taken place. Airing live on TBS and TNT on Sunday, January 27 (at 5PM PST/8PM EST), some of the biggest movies of the year are making tracks towards the Big Night (aka the Academy Awards), while television shows like Homeland and Modern Family will see if they can continue to dominate.
Will 30 Rock go out with big wins? Will Maggie Smith continue to not show up (yes, of course)? Check out the winners (in bold), which will be updated live, below!
THEATRICAL MOTION PICTURES
Outstanding Performance By A Male Actor In A Leading Role
Bradley Cooper / Pat - "Silver Linings Playbook" (The Weinstein Company)
Daniel Day-Lewis / Abraham Lincoln - "Lincoln" (Touchstone Pictures)
John Hawkes / Mark - "The Sessions" (FOX Searchlight)
Hugh Jackman / Jean Valjean - "Les Misérables" (Universal Pictures)
Denzel Washington / Whip Whitaker - "Flight" (Paramount Pictures)
Outstanding Performance By A Female Actor In A Leading Role
Jessica Chastain / Maya - "Zero Dark Thirty" (Columbia Pictures)
Marion Cotillard / Stephanie - "Rust And Bone" (sony Pictures Classics)
Jennifer Lawrence / Tiffany - "Silver Linings Playbook" (The Weinstein Company)
Helen Mirren / Alma Reville - "Hitchcock" (FOX Searchlight)
Naomi Watts / Maria - "The Impossible" (Summit Entertainment)
Outstanding Performance By A Male Actor In A Supporting Role
Alan Arkin / Lester Siegel - "Argo" (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Javier Bardem / Silva - "Skyfall" (Columbia Pictures)
Robert De Niro / Pat, Sr. - "Silver Linings Playbook" (The Weinstein Company)
Philip Seymour Hoffman / Lancaster Dodd - "The Master" (The Weinstein Company)
Tommy Lee Jones / Thaddeus Stevens - "Lincoln" (Touchstone Pictures)
Outstanding Performance By A Female Actor In A Supporting Role
Sally Field / Mary Todd Lincoln - "Lincoln" (Touchstone Pictures)
Anne Hathaway / Fantine - "Les Misérables" (Universal Pictures)
Helen Hunt / Cheryl - "The Sessions" (FOX Searchlight)
Nicole Kidman / Charlotte Bless - "The Paperboy" (Millennium Entertainment)
Maggie Smith / Muriel Donnelly - "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (FOX Searchlight)
Outstanding Performance By A Cast In A Motion Picture
Argo (Warner Bros. Pictures)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (FOX Searchlight)
Les Misérables (Universal Pictures)
Lincoln (Touchstone Pictures)
Silver Linings Playbook (The Weinstein Company)
Outstanding Performance By A Male Actor In A Television Movie Or Miniseries
Kevin Costner / "Devil Anse" Hatfield - "Hatfields & Mccoys" (History)
Woody Harrelson / Steve Schmidt - "Game Change" (HBO)
Ed Harris / John Mccain - "Game Change" (HBO)
Clive Owen / Ernest Hemingway & "Hemingway & Gellhorn" (HBO)
Bill Paxton / Randall Mccoy - "Hatfields & Mccoys" (History)
Outstanding Performance By A Female Actor In A Television Movie Or Miniseries
Nicole Kidman / Martha Gellhorn - "Hemingway & Gellhorn" (HBO)
Julianne Moore / Sarah Palin - "Game Change" (HBO)
Charlotte Rampling / Eva Delectorskaya - "Restless" (Sundance Channel)
Sigourney Weaver / Elaine Barrish Hammond - "Political Animals" (USA)
Alfre Woodard / Ouiser - "Steel Magnolias" (Lifetime)
Outstanding Performance By A Male Actor In A Drama Series
Steve Buscemi / Enoch "Nucky" Thompson - "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO)
Bryan Cranston / Walter White - "Breaking Bad" (AMC)
Jeff Daniels / Will McAvoy - "The Newsroom" (HBO)
Jon Hamm / Don Draper - "Mad Men" (AMC)
Damian Lewis / Nicholas Brody - "Homeland" (Showtime)
Outstanding Performance By A Female Actor In A Drama Series
Claire Danes / Carrie Mathison - "Homeland" (Showtime)
Michelle Dockery / Lady Mary Crawley - "Downton Abbey" (PBS)
Jessica Lange / Sister Jude - "American Horror Story: Asylum" (FX)
Julianna Margulies / Alicia Florrick - "The Good Wife" (CBS)
Maggie Smith / Violet, Dowager Countess Of Grantham - "Downton Abbey" (PBS)
Outstanding Performance By A Male Actor In A Comedy Series
Alec Baldwin / Jack Donaghy - "30 Rock" (NBC)
Ty Burrell / Phil Dunphy - "Modern Family" (ABC)
Louis C.K. / Louie - "Louie" (FX)
Jim Parsons / Sheldon Cooper - "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS)
Eric Stonestreet / Cameron Tucker - "Modern Family" (ABC)
Outstanding Performance By A Female Actor In A Comedy Series
Edie Falco / Jackie Peyton - "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime)
Tina Fey / Liz Lemon - "30 Rock" (NBC)
Amy Poehler / Leslie Knope - "Parks and Recreation" (NBC)
Sofia Vergara / Gloria Delgado-Pritchett - "Modern Family" (ABC)
Betty White / Elka Ostrovsky - "Hot In Cleveland" (TV Land)
Outstanding Performance By An Ensemble In A Drama Series
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Breaking Bad (AMC)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
Mad Men (AMC)
Outstanding Performance By An Ensemble In A Comedy Series
30 Rock (NBC)
Modern Family (ABC)
Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
The Office (NBC)
SAG AWARDS HONORS FOR STUNT ENSEMBLES
Outstanding Action Performance By A Stunt Ensemble In A Motion Picture
The Amazing Spider-Man (Columbia Pictures)
The Bourne Legacy (Universal Pictures)
The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Les Misérables (Universal Pictures)
Skyfall (Columbia Pictures)
Outstanding Action Performance By A Stunt Ensemble In A Television Series
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Breaking Bad (AMC)
Game Of Thrones (HBO)
Sons Of Anarchy (FX)
The Walking Dead (AMC)
Screen Actors Guild 49th Annual Life Achievement Award
Dick Van Dyke
What do you think of this year's winners and losers? Shocked? Happy? Sad? Let us know, in the comments below!
[Photo Credit: Mark Davis/Getty Images]
Follow Alicia on Twitter @alicialutes
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Producers Guild Awards 2013: 'Argo,' 'Homeland' Continue Award Season Domination
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