It’s almost not fair. When confronted with landscapes of jawdropping primeval beauty, cherry blossoms floating in a gentle wind, noble warriors in a suicide charge, and Tom Cruise astride a horse in full samurai armor, his katana brandished high and locks a-flowing in the wind, how can a movielover resist? Oh, and there’s ninjas, too, lots of ninjas, in case nothing else strikes your fancy, and who doesn’t like ninjas? It’s like saying you don’t like cupcakes.
Unfortunately, “The Last Samurai” isn’t just desert, it has to fashion a meaningful story out of all its rich ingredients, and that’s where it falters. Star/producer/swordfighter Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a decorated ex-soldier who’s survived the Civil War and the Indian Wars with a Medal of Honor, a mean whiskey habit and a headful of guilt-spiked nightmares. Come the year 1876, Algren gets hired by his old commander (Tony Goldwyn) to train the army of the Emperor of Japan, who’s busy modernizing his country and needs help fighting an insurrection of samurai led by one Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Algren has barely gotten his recruits acquainted with their muskets when they’re thrown into a disastrous battle, after which Algren is captured and taken back to Katsumoto’s village.
At which point the film enters its already much-remarked-upon “Dances With Wolves” phase, where we watch Algren’s increasing fascination with the villagers’ Simple and Peaceful Way of Life, not to mention the Noble Code of Bushido that governs all the samurai hanging about, waiting to get another crack at the emperor’s army. Being a mercenary with a serious death wish, Algren doesn’t need much prodding to take up with Katsumoto’s side and soon a confrontation is set up whereby Algren will be riding into battle with his former enemies. Nothing like a ninja attack in the night to get you to choose sides.
If “The Last Samurai” were just about Algren’s change of heart, it would be a pretty unwatchable film, even with all its rich elements. The script, by John Logan (Gladiator), is mostly unmemorable guff, to the point where even the normally game Cruise isn’t able to do much with it. Never one for the serious stuff, Cruise has nevertheless successfully played some more troubled characters in the past (Magnolia and “Born on the Fourth of July” come to mind), but here he doesn’t seem to know what to do, and it leaves a vacancy at the center of the film. But director Edward Zwick has an ace up his sleeve, in addition to all the glorious scenery and pulse-pounding battles, and that’s Ken Watanabe.
A Japanese actor who may have only been seen outside the country due to a small role in “Tampopo,” Watanabe is nothing short of a discovery here. Silent and glowering, he seems to always have a sardonic grin which just barely never appears, somehow mixing the magnetic charm of Chow Yun-Fat with the authority of Yul Brynner. Watanabe ably gives the film the gravitas which it otherwise would have lacked.
If only all of this could have meant something. Because for all the beauty and savagery on display here – shot by John Toll, recalling his masterful work on “The Thin Red Line” – it seems at times arbitrary. Sure, the warrior bond between Algren and Watanabe is well presented, and there’s a battle scene that ranks up with some of the best ever filmed, but what’s all of it for? Are viewers supposed to be rooting for the samurai, who (although the film glosses over this fact) had violently suppressed the peasantry for centuries and fanatically hated any change? Zwick and Cruise have (rightly) professed their love for the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, but he was a director who knew better. Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” ends with a battle (echoed here) in which an army of mounted samurai bravely charge a wall of musket-armed soldiers, only to be completely mowed down. Zwick wants to play it like The Charge of the Light Brigade, all elegiac valor. Kurosawa knew that such an act was just stupid obstinacy, a bloody waste disguised as nobility.
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