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47 ronin

I wasn’t around in 1980 to take in the critical and public reaction to Michael Cimino’s western “Heaven’s Gate,”  but it’s the kind of epic, crawling cinematic disaster that doesn’t happen very often, presumably because it all seems so obvious in hindsight. With “Heaven’s Gate,” it’s at least understandable how it all came to be. Cimino had been tagged an ascendant director, fresh off an Oscar win in 1979 for “The Deer Hunter.” The film was squarely in his hands and his studio, United Artists, had reason for their faith in him. Cimino, in fact, was only partially responsible for the final product, which was hacked apart in the editing room after negative early press screenings.

The upcoming “47 Ronin,” on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother beast. This film looks like it will be a disaster without any qualifications or defensibility, a true catastrophe that went wrong from the very beginning but was pushed and shoved to this ultimate conclusion. And for that reason, I find it very interesting.

Examination of this film, which releases nation-wide on Christmas Day, must begin with its first-time director Carl Erik Rinsch.  Before “47 Ronin,” he was known for directing a largely plotless 4-minute sci-fi short film called “The Gift,” as well as a few TV commercials for BMW and Heineken  (I guess he likes robots?). Some of the higher-ups at Universal were apparently very impressed with these, because they saw fit to hand Rinsch a starting budget of $175 million to direct a period piece epic based on one of Japan’s most famous national legends. You can see why he jumped at the offer. If someone offered our videographer Hugh Sullivan $175 million to do a feature after seeing his short films, I expect he would sign on that dotted line, even if said project did involve Keanu Reeves as a samurai.

And so, Rinsch and Co. went to work, intent on adding another stand-out entry to the “white guy inserted into foreign mythos to save the world” sub-genre. But all was not well, and it was quickly clear that things at the London shoot were amiss. Production costs expanded, ballooning up to an estimated $225 million. Numerous delays halted production, leading to reshoots. Even Reeves, the film’s supposed star, was busy during part of its production with his own directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi.” He eventually was brought back for reshoots to, I kid you not, add him back in to the film’s final action sequence. Apparently he wasn’t a part of it previously? Does that seem concerning?

To say these issues pushed back the movie’s eventual release is an understatement, as it was initially scheduled for December of 2012. In late 2012, Universal clearly voiced its concern when it pulled Rinsch from further work on the film’s editing, putting studio executives in charge who were almost a full hemisphere away from the London shoot.  Go ahead and read the article in that link, and consider that it was posted in September of 2012. You know it’s a bad sign when you can go back 15 months to find an article about all the production problems a movie has been having, and the film still isn’t out.

Of course, none of this would matter if “47 Ronin” was a film that audiences wanted to see, but by now you probably realize where I’m going with this. The movie opened the first week of December in Japan, earning only $1.3 million in its first weekend. It was beaten handily by a film titled “Lupin the 3rd vs. Detective Conan: The Movie,” and I don’t believe I need to make a joke about this. As is, unless it unpredictably becomes a record-breaking smash hit in the United States, “47 Ronin” is likely to end up as an extremely costly bomb for Universal. All in all, it could end up losing even more cash than this summer’s “The Lone Ranger,” especially after you factor in the cost of marketing.

Unsurprisingly, the critical reviews have been scathing as well. My favorite is this 0.5 review from Film.com,  which calls the movie “possibly the second-worst thing to happen to Japan so far this century.”

As that author goes on to point out, it may be that for filmmakers and film fans who are weary of seeing these bloated box-office failures, a catastrophic bomb on behalf of “47 Ronin” might be more positive than negative. The system is in dire need of a change, with studios becoming utterly dependent on “tentpole” features even when none of their films in production deserve such lavish treatment. Studios need to stop assuming they can dump huge amounts of money into a film and have that translate into increased ticket sales. That’s just not how it works, and when a movie like “47 Ronin” needs to make more than $200 million domestically just to break even, it’s a more fantastical scenario than the plot of the film in question.

I may very well go to see “47 Ronin” just to be able to say I was there when it all came crashing down into a heap. I just hope the studio doesn’t take my single irony-laden ticket purchase as a mandate to pump out more of this stuff.

What do you think, sirs?

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Entertainment Reporter for the Herald & Review

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