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.
The best player in the World for movie trailers, Hollywood interviews and movie clips.
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.
It is a bit of unfortunate irony that the film genre most reliant on shocks is wont to spit out the least surprising entries on the market. While a good horror movie is an unappreciated gem, most of them wind up conflated with its interchangeable brethren, difficult to distinguish in any way other than its headlining cast (and even there you're bound to see a ton of overlap). Most horror movies don't have a lot to show in the face of originality, which is why it is such a disappointment when one with actually venerable material shifts it to the sidelines in favor of the same old song and dance. The Conjuring, a culprit of this crime, doesn't know what kind of majesty it has in its team of exorcists: a spiritually-inclined, ghost-busting expert Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his even more adept, albeit frequently ghoul-afflicted, wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), their eager lackey Drew (Shannon Kook), and a skeptical lawman who saddles up for the expedition at hand — the abolition of the evil inside the Perron household. But the real nightmarish infestation here: the Perrons.
While most of the scenes devoted to the crack team of demon hunters are scary, emotional, fun, or just plain interesting (a high point in the movie comes in the form of a somber, macabre montage that oversees the foursome upholding their routine of keeping peace in the haunted home), the film lends a good deal of its attention to the frightened civilians, Roger (Ron Livingson) and Cynthia (Lili Taylor) and their endless supply of daughters.
In the Perrons, we do get some charm, primarily from the talented young players — if we haven't already learned that Joey King is headed for greatness, the bright light she shines through the less interesting factions of The Conjuring will solidify this notion. But aside from some naturalistic family undercurrents, most of the Perrons' time onscreen is ensconced in worrisome gasps.
It's nothing you can't find in any other horror movie on the shelves... I mean, Netflix sub-menus. Meanwhile, the far more intriguing dynamic of the professional team brought in to absolve the family of their nightmares is swept under the rug.
But this might not be a problem for all. There's a reason that the horror genre feels like an assembly line of identical cogs: it works. People want a certain thing out of their scare flick, and that certain thing is delivered in all of the big box office winners and cult frenzies. As such, to all those seeking little more than a few jump scares and some haunting imagery, The Conjuring should satisfy. After all, nothing tops a freaky doll in the chills department. But if you're the sort of horror-goer who looks for something new — the sort who has seen the "based on a true story" advertisements and inventive marketing and thought, "Now this one looks different!" — you might in fact be in for a surprise. The not-so-great kind.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter | Follow hollywood.com on Twitter @hollywood_com
More:'The Conjuring': A Collection of Horror ClassicsThe Real Family Behind 'The Conjuring'6 'Conjuring' Clips
From Our PartnersStars Pose Naked for 'Allure' (Celebuzz)20 Grisliest TV Deaths of 2012-2013 (Vulture)