Thursday, May 8, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE ART OF THE STEAL (2014) and 47 RONIN (2013)

(Canada - 2013; US release 2014)

Is there anybody who doesn't like Kurt Russell?  Over his 50-year career, he's managed to become a beloved movie icon without actually having many blockbusters at the box office.  1991's BACKDRAFT and 1994's STARGATE were his biggest hits, and they never broke $80 million in 1990s dollars. Russell's best films tend to cultivate their bases over time, which is a trait he shares with his old friend John Carpenter.  None of their collaborations performed spectacularly on their initial theatrical releases, but 1981's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, 1982's THE THING, and 1986's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA are frequently cited as essential films of their decade.  They found their audience on video and cable and they've remained popular over the years as they've been discovered by new generations of fans. Even TOMBSTONE wasn't that massive a hit in 1993.  But it has such a fervent following today that it's hard to believe it topped out at $56 million and never got higher than third place at the box office.  The typical Russell vehicle has been one that did modest business in theaters and became popular video rentals on their way to constant rotation on cable. Russell's filmography reads like TNT's and AMC's weekend schedule over the last 20 years: USED CARS, OVERBOARD, TEQUILA SUNRISE, TANGO & CASH, UNLAWFUL ENTRY, CAPTAIN RON, EXECUTIVE DECISION, ESCAPE FROM L.A., BREAKDOWN, DARK BLUE, POSEIDON, etc. Russell may be the patron saint of "Movie you end up watching until it's over if you find it while channel-surfing."

Now 63, Russell's slowed down in recent years and took a five-year break after his turn as Stuntman Mike in the DEATH PROOF half of GRINDHOUSE before returning in a supporting role as a coach in the barely-released 2012 football drama TOUCHBACK.  It's no surprise that, with today's "$100 million on the opening weekend or it's a bomb" mindset, a new Kurt Russell movie only managed to get released on 60 screens for a $64,000 gross, but THE ART OF THE STEAL is a fun heist comedy that finds the man in vintage "Kurt Russell" form.  Russell is Crunch Calhoun, a veteran wheelman who just spent over five years in a Polish prison after taking the fall for his younger brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) when their last job went south.  Nicky is a slick con artist who's just made off with a priceless Georges Seurat painting but did so by cutting out his partner (Dax Ravina) who demands compensation from Crunch. Crunch touches base with Nicky and they reassemble the old crew--French forger Guy (Chris Diamantopoulos) and Paddy the Rolodex (Kenneth Welsh), with new additions Francie (Jay Baruchel), and Crunch's greedy wife Lola (Katheryn Winnick), on a $20 million plan to get a rare Gutenberg-printed Gospel According to James out of a Montreal customs house and smuggle it over the US border into Detroit, all with an incompetent Interpol agent (THE DAILY SHOW's Jason Jones) and a reluctant informant (Terence Stamp) on their tail. Of course, double and triple-crosses transpire and there's really nothing here plot-wise you haven't seen in a ton of other caper movies, but the Russell-led ensemble works very well together and writer/director Jonathan Sobol throws in some offbeat touches (like Ravina's brawny goon being a Seurat connoisseur), and numerous snappy exchanges and bits of quotable dialogue (Crunch and Nicky referring to lecherous Paddy as "Uncle Fucks-a-lot" and "Sloppy Balls McCarthy"; Francie putting on a fake Amish beard and telling a border officer that he's starring in a Broadway musical version of WITNESS! "with an exclamation point").  The heist itself is fairly routine and the story rather slight, but THE ART OF THE STEAL is an enjoyable little movie that doesn't overstay its welcome and gets a lot of mileage out of Russell's engaging presence and genuinely funny performance. It's the kind of film you'll stop on and end up watching if you come across it on TV some lazy Saturday afternoon--in other words, it's a quintessential Kurt Russell movie, and you can always use one of those.  Also, "Crunch Calhoun" is right up there with "Snake Plissken," "R.J. MacReady," "Reno Hightower," "Jack Burton," "Gabriel Cash," and "Bull McCaffrey" on the list of Awesome Kurt Russell Character Names.  (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2013)

In the coming years, the long-delayed 47 RONIN is likely to be regarded less as just a bad movie and more as a case study for meddlesome production mismanagement and apocalyptically out-to-lunch decision-making.  It's not just a case of too many cooks in the kitchen--it's also a case of everyone just assuming someone else has got the cooking covered.  Every problem that the production encountered got worse when simply throwing more money at it failed to magically solve anything.  The legendary Japanese tale of the 47 Ronin has been told before and referenced many times in Japanese cinema:  in the 18th century, 47 outcast former samurai seek to avenge the death of their master, driven to suicide after being shamed in a dispute with a rival lord who insulted him.  It's a story that's influenced everything from Japanese folklore to the classic samurai films of Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi, who made the original 1941 version of 47 RONIN (Kon Ichikawa directed the 1994 remake).  The 2013 47 RONIN may share a title and the setting, but it ends there.  Why?  Because the people behind the latest 47 RONIN offer what the other versions lack and they felt we've been missing all this time:  a first-time director (Carl Rinsch) working with a $175 million budget; a shape-shifting witch disguising herself as a demonic fox and casting spells on samurai warriors; and absurdly inappropriate creatures like ogres, orcs, dragons, something called "the Lovecraftian Samurai," and Keanu Reeves. It's the famous story filtered through LORD OF THE RINGS and coming out as something akin to IN THE NAME OF THE RONIN. Who thought any of this was a good idea? Reeves has done some fine work over his career, but after DANGEROUS LIAISONS and BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, how does anyone willingly cast him in a serious period piece?

Universal knew they were in trouble when they announced a writedown before the film even opened.  It grossed just $38 million domestically and bombed overseas. Of course, it was Rinsch who got thrown under the bus, but things only got ridiculous when the suits didn't like the rough cut he submitted as far back as the fall of 2011. They complained that it felt like "a samurai art film" and demanded more special effects and more Reeves. Reeves plays Kai, a Japanese/British half-breed adopted by the benevolent samurai leader Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). Kai is a character invented for the film, and it constantly struggles to find a use for him.  The real star is veteran Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada as Oishi, the leader of the late Lord Asano's disgraced ronin, who's plotting vengeance against Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), who's under the control of the aforementioned shapeshifting witch (Rinko Kikuchi). Kikuchi was added to the film after Rinsch's original cut was rejected and DRIVE screenwriter Hossein Amini was brought on to reconstruct Chris Morgan's script.  Amini added the supernatural elements as well as more scenes for Reeves, whose Kai was so secondary to the crux of the plot that he initially wasn't even involved in the climax of the film.  Production was delayed since they had to wait until Reeves was finished with MAN OF TAI CHI so he could return to shoot the new scenes, causing the fall 2012 release date to get bumped to over a year later, when the film finally opened on Christmas Day 2013. It already felt like Reeves was in another movie altogether, but it's never more glaring than in the climax, where Oishi and Kira fight it out while Kai battles the witch, who has shape-shifted into a snake-like, fire-breathing dragon.  Not since hastily-shot footage of Eddie Murphy goofing off in a tank was shoehorned into the two-years-on-the-shelf Dudley Moore comedy BEST DEFENSE in 1984 has post-production stitching looked so cumbersome and desperate. How does a beloved, culture-defining story of the samurai code of honor end up with Keanu Reeves discovering his CROUCHING TIGER-meets-THE MATRIX flying powers while battlling a dragon?

Actual shot from 47 RONIN
You want to know the extent of the cluelessness of everyone involved?  It wasn't discovered until shooting began that many of the Japanese actors weren't fluent in English and had to speak their dialogue phonetically (some of them are quite clearly dubbed or they at least looped it in post).  Who was in charge here?  Sure, some of this probably lies on Rinsch, but this stopped being his vision once the rough cut was shot down.  From that point on, he was simply an employee on his way to becoming a convenient scapegoat.  The majority of the blame should rest with the producers and studio execs who insisted on abandoning the source story with the lethal combo of Reeves and CGI monsters and let the budget bloat without ever really settling on or communicating to Rinsch exactly what it was they wanted.  Sanada and Asano give it their best effort and try to bring some sense of dignity to the grease fire spreading around them, and the film would work a lot better if it stayed focused on them instead of Reeves and orcs and dragons.  The visual effects are subpar for such an obscene budget and where's the sense of spirit that vital to any samurai film? These things are supposed to be rousing and alive! Where's the camaraderie among the ronin? There's 47 of them but we meet something like five, tops. This whole catastrophe might've been more palatable with the right kind of tongue-in-cheek attitude, but 47 RONIN is dour, dull, and takes itself far too seriously for a film that has little use and even less respect for its source story.  Its only accomplishment is in the way it effectively demonstrates everything wrong with Hollywood in just under two hours.  (PG-13, 119 mins)

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