In THE LAST SAMURAI, we have a puffed up popcorn flick that is not without a certain kitschy charm. It is a throwback to those glorious action-adventure films that Hollywood churned out with astonishing regularity during its golden age with little regard for the limitations of reality. It was all flash, glamour and really pearly teeth. Hence our leading man Tom Cruise, in this years Oscar ® bid.
Cruise is Nathan Algren, a drunken ex-army captain who has seen duty in the Civil and Indian Wars, the latter with Custer. The trauma of the latters disastrous end would explain the sad state Algren has found himself early in 1876 as a huckster for Winchester rifles in slightly better than average medicine show. Salvation arrives in the person of an old pal from his Army days (Billy Connolly) with an offer from, of all people, the Emperor of Japan. The monarch, being a forward thinking guy, wants to modernize, as in westernize, his entire country, including the army, replacing swords with guns and samurai with regular infantry. Algren, somewhere along the way, wrote a book about the American Indians that found its way to the land of the rising sun and impressed his majesty. Hence, the offer. When Algren arrives in Japan, he finds that a full rebellion by the samurai is underway and before you can say wasabi, hes been captured by the rebel leader and as a result of his captivity as the pampered if not welcome guest of the leaders sister, learns to respect and then follow the way of the samurai.
Now, in order to enjoy a film like this, you have to let several things go. First, that Algren, who has spent a considerable amount of time in the bottom of a bottle, could not only take on several samurai at once, but actually survive for more than a millisecond in order to be taken captive. Second, that in the six months of his captivity, he could go from all-American rifleman to Bruce Lee as far as martial arts are concerned. Finally, that almost everyone speaks English. It is possible to get past them, though, if you really, really try. Some other problems present a higher hurdle. Top of the list is Cruise himself. Sure, he goes through all the motions of emoting great anguish and brooding melancholy, but there is no gravitas to lend authority to his strenuous dramatic efforts. He only really comes to life when hes doing things like a take-off on his underwear dance in RISKY BUSINESS. Substitute kimono for underwear, fencing moves for dancing. This is exacerbated by the fact that everyone around him is so much more charismatic. Connolly as the garrulous Irish sergeant from Algrens army days along for an Asian adventure lights up the screen without breaking a sweat trying. Ken Watanabe as the elegant and refined samurai rebel, Katsumoto has a commanding presence that requires no more than the palpable self-assurance Watanabe brings to the role, as well as the keen intelligence and sharp wit. Its a character and a performance that leaves me wondering why we couldnt have a film centered around this guy. Against these two, Cruise all but fades from the screen like a Cheshire Cat, leaving only his pearly whites. And his narration. Its as inept as any voiceovers that Ive heard of late, full of such trenchant observations as Im a prisoner here, there is no escape because, apparently, we couldnt figure that out on our own after Katsumoto tells Algren just that not five minutes earlier. Top it off with as many clichés as the script by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and director Edward Zwick can muster, including the ever popular tracking muddy shoes into the house and having the Japanese complain about how bad Algren smells.
At its best, THE LAST SAMURAI is a lovely travelogue, filmed with sensitivity to the outward serenity that the Japanese culture cultivates. There are wide shots of battalions ready for battle, loving sweeps of a watercolor perfect countryside, and a shot of samurai advancing through a mist that captures the eerie beauty such a sight must have been for Americans of that time. Its motives are noble, too. It wants to show us that sometimes honor is more important than life, modern is not always better, but in its 144 minutes of trying, it wraps the message in a story that is barely competent in its telling, and ultimately becomes the tale of how one white guy came to Japan and showed the Japanese where they all went wrong. The entertainment value is negligible and the politics are far less than savory.