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.
After honing his skills as a stuntman on GoldenEye, The World Is Not Enough, and Tomorrow Never Dies (among a variety of non-Bond blockbusters), Gary Powell returned to the 007 franchise as the mastermind of all things action. As a stunt coordinator, Powell works with the Bond directors — Martin Campbell, Marc Forster, and now Sam Mendes on this month's new release, Skyfall — to devise stunts that work in the context of the the suave spy's globetrotting missions.
"When we started off with Casino Royale, Martin [Campbell] set the tone straight away," says Powell. "The opening sequence was great because it was real." Powell says believability is the prime goal when constructing stunts for a Bond movie. The character may seem superheroic, but the mission is to never let the audience forget that he's a regular guy with luck on his side. "Everything we do now, we put it right on the edge of a-person-could-actually-survive-this. If everything worked out right for him. We literally push it to the edge of human capabilities."
Powell worked closely with Skyfall director Sam Mendes and long-time Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who also trusted him with adding his own ideas into the script. Powell points to the film's complex opening sequence, a scene that involves a car chase and a big fight on top of a moving train. Born from a way to introduce us to the characters — namely, the Skyfall version of Bond, and Naomie Harris' character Eve — Powell says the digger sequence was a moment when Mendes and company stepped back and let the action-minded man do his work.
"Everything you see with the train is real," says Powell, who worked with a number of different skilled stuntmen to pull off the feat. For the beginning of the sequence, stunt driver Ben Collins was enlisted to man Bond and Eve's Land Rover — even though the actors would be seen in closeup driving the vehicle. "Basically, I was on the roof in what's called a pod system," says Collins. "It's like a metal cage with the steering and the pedals and the gears, so that basically I'm driving it from the roof with the actress underneath. Then we can really get the characters right into the heart of the action." Collins explains that hydraulic lines divert the steering to the roof, so that any motions made by Harris would be disconnected. He jokes, "It's pretty spooky for the actress."
When it comes to Bond-centric stunts later in the scene, it's all Daniel Craig. "Obviously, we have safety cables when Daniel is up there, but Daniel is up there," says Powell. "He ran up the arm and [it's him] on the train fighting." Powell praises Craig for tackling as many action beats as the production's insurance will allow him to attempt. It's a rare quality in a star, but Powell thinks it defines the actor's Bond films. "He feels like he [would be] cheating the audience. It's not an ego thing. Like, 'Look at me up there!' When the audience pays their money and goes to see the film, he wants them to know it's him up there."
Continuing to add to the reality, Skyfall shot its foot chase through The Tube, London's underground subway, on an actual platform that was no longer used by the public. "Originally, we were looking to use the real underground and having restricted access to it," says Powell. "But it became apparent that if, for any reason, something wasn't working, be it camera or lighting or anything, we wouldn't complete the sequence in the time allocated to us." Still, rigging a real life space for a Bond stunt — even when unoccupied by bystanders — presents a challenge. The space was equipped to send Bond flying down the escalator. Delicately flying. "You have to be respectful of the building. You can't start hacking holes in things. Makes it complicated."
One scene that was too complicated to shoot on location was Bond's infiltration of a Chinese skyscraper and subsequent fist fight — a sequence that sends Patrice the assassin flying out of a window. Bond stealthily grabs hold of the bottom of an elevator to follow Patrice, an effect that involved camera trickery but was no less demanding of Craig. "He does dangle," says Powell. "He's never standing, even if it's a blue screen set." To pull off the brutal brawl, Powell worked with fight coordinator Nicola Berwick, fight trainer Roger Yuan, and stunt double Damien Walters to choreograph a quarrel that would suit Mendes' vision. "We would put things together, video it, and show [Sam]. He says, 'I like that. I'm not too sure about that. Can you do this? Can you do that?' An ongoing process of building it up until we get exactly what he wants. And then when we turn up on the day, it's exactly what he wants. No making it up — that costs time and money."
While Powell avoids putting himself in harm's way these days ("I used to bounce really well when I was in my twenties. By the end of my thirties I wasn't bouncing as good."), his lengthy résumé makes him an asset to the filmmakers behind Bond movies. He knows action, but he also understands storytelling. "[Sam] had a very clear idea of how he wanted the action to be. Which is good — it wasn't just stunts," says Powell. "They have to make sense in the scene. Bond can't be doing something then out of the blue something turns up that doesn't fit in with the scene that's going on. Trying to keep it as real as possible. Making it believable."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures (4)]
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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.