Even if Keanu Reeves knew how to act, 47 Ronin would probably still not be a terribly good film. This is sad, because the original Japanese story about a band of warriors who set out to avenge the death of their lord, an act explicitly forbidden by the emperor, is splendid material. They face certain death in the event of failure, and in the event of success, death for their disobedience to the emperor. Director Carl Rinsch, whose background is primarily in advertising, has a reasonable eye for action, but is incapable of managing pace and tone. Then there is Reeves’ character, who as a half-English half-Japanese outcast with a grudge of his own, has been inserted into the story simply to make the film appeal to Western audiences. Not only is his presence unnecessary, it also fouls up the strong dynamic of the tale. His leaden acting is highlighted further by good performances by the lead Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who carries the main emotional burden of the film. Visually, 47 Ronin has its moments, but its squandering of excellent source material to make what is little more than a big-budget B-movie is tragic.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Based on a short story by James Thurber published in 1939 and first made into a film starring Danny Kaye in the title role in 1947. This version robbed Thurber’s story of much of its darkness, and this new version, with Ben Stiller in the lead, strips it of what little narrative muscle that remained. Without doubt, Stiller, who also directs, has created a visually stunning, if over-manicured, movie, but while the romantic comedy at the heart of the story, along with the inevitable and glibly inspiring tale of self-discovery, is well intentioned and good natured, it is also cloying and backhandedly manipulative. In Stiller’s film, Mitty’s fantasies drift into reality as he “embarks on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.” There is some clever cinematography that allows fantasy and reality to drift in and out of each other, and scenes such as Mitty skateboarding toward an erupting volcano have their share of cinematic vim, but at the end of it we are left with nothing more substantial than one of Mitty’s fantasy.
It’s probably too long, too big and too much of a mess, but David O Russell’s film American Hustle has a huge heart and you can forgive most of its many sins against good storytelling. Russell proves himself the master of mood and tone in what might seems to start off as a police procedural, but which grows into a human comedy that plays off against a brilliant jazz score and a dazzling 1970s backdrop. The story is based on an actual FBI sting operation, the Abscam operation, which resulted in a massive takedown of senior politicians for corruption. Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist, helped the FBI design and carry out the operation. The story itself has massive potential, and its cast, which includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence, is certainly going to get any cinephile excited. The story is vastly convoluted, and Russell, whose track record includes recent critical successes The Fighter and the Silver Linings Playbook, has managed to go off the rails in spectacularly entertaining fashion, holding together a movie that in other hands would surely fall apart at the seams.