Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn
Didn't Richard Chamberlain already make this as an interminable TV mini-series a number of years ago?
Whatever else it does, Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai certainly manages the interminable part with great flair. This movie is a full 144 minutes, and I felt every one of them creep by. Actually, this Asianized variant on Dances With Wolves seems mostly to exist to prove the truth of those lyrics by Mr. Gilbert in (ironically enough) The Mikado -- the ones where Koko makes a list of people who wouldn't be missed, and includes those persons who praise "every century but this one, and every country but their own."
I can see the point of those great many people who've blasted this film as a typical example of another culture learning a valuable lesson about itself through the courtesy of a white man. But even beyond that, The Last Samurai seems to be a stiff-backed treatise on our own sense of cultural inferiority, as the movie pays homage to those times when honor mattered (known to us and the filmmakers solely from books and movies), and to a culture that is richer than anything we now have (with this information again based on books, and not onpersonal experience). That this film, of course, turns those times, that culture and those bygone people into some kind of exotic curio is a typical byproduct of such stilted mythologizing.
Examining the passing of an era can prove ripe with drama and emotional resonance. Even such a campy, jokey work as Paul Morrissey's Blood for Dracula managed to pull off an underlying aura of sadness concerning how changes can wipe out an entire way of life. The Last Samurai would, no doubt, like to come across similarly, but it's too choked with rampant romanticizing, the need to be an epic and, of course, its own duty as a star vehicle for its co-producer/star. Even if you take the short view that this project may have appealed to Tom Cruise because he surmised he'd be taller than much of the cast, there's still no denying that Last Samurai is at its best as a star vehicle -- at least when it isn't trying too hard to work as a star vehicle cum Oscar bait (and that's assuming you can get past the spectacle of Cruise festooned in Japanese fighting armor).
The plot presents Cruise as booze-soaked Civil War veteran Capt. Nathan Algren, a cynic reduced to hawking Winchester rifles along with war and subsequent Indian-fighting stories of derring-do. His big break comes when he receives an offer to go to Japan and train the emperor's army in the use of modern weaponry. Unfortunately, Algren and his sidekick (an underused Billy Connolly, who packs it in before he can get out a complete "Ach aye f***in' Glasgae ach") soon run afoul of Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, Tampopo). This "last samurai" takes Algren prisoner rather than killing him, because Katsumoto has had a vision.
And no, it's not some image of the Westerner dancing in his underwear to Bob Seeger; rather, it's something more mystical, involving a tiger. Sure enough, Algren soon begins to admire the samurai code, and finally changes sides, becoming the chief assistant to Katsumoto in his last stand against the modernization of Japan.
Some of this works, and some of it doesn't. High on the list of things that don't is a far-fetched romance between Algren and Taka (Koyuki, Alive), a woman whose husband the former Civil War soldier has killed in battle. It's hard to believe that she takes up with Algren for any reason other than that he's played by the movie's star. It's even harder to believe in the devotion evidenced by the son of the dead man -- except that it's always good in this kind of movie to have a starry-eyed youngster dote on the hero.
Less hard to swallow is the emperor's acceptance of Algren as the keeper of Katsumoto's legacy, but the character of the emperor (newcomer Shichinosuke Nakamura) is so underwritten that this comes more out of left field than Hugh Grant's prime minister standing up to the U.S. president in Love Actually. The tone, which I hate to think is deliberate, comes perilously close to presenting the emperor as a kind of cliched Asian who is just too inscrutable to comprehend.
Apart from the film's credible bout of Cruisean heroics and arrogance, the viewer is left with some well-executed battle scenes by a director who clearly wants to be Kurosawa (but who comes nearer to being an imitation Sam Peckinpah by way of Arthur Penn). While the action is effectively staged, it's so filled with slow-mo bloodletting that it becomes stylized out of existence, and almost risible when the Gatlin guns get brought in for a Bonnie and Clyde-styled climax that strains credulity beyond all reason, when characters boasting enough lead in them to land them at the bottom of the ocean just keep on going and going and going.
While this might work in a silly action movie, it merely undermines the strained seriousness of the film at hand. I don't deny that there's a lot of craftsmanship at work here, plus a pretty good Cruise performance and a splendid one from the ever-reliable Timothy Spall (Nicholas Nickelby), but Last Samarai finally seems more an exercise in that craftsmanship than a completely realized film.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke