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.
Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.