The Last Samurai

December, 2002, Drama

Here's a storyline for you; a disillusioned American Calvary officer, (who peppers his diary with sketches and narrates his life story in stilted 19th century American-ese) responds to post-Civil War stress by rejecting his own people in favor of an oppressed minority leading simple but pure lives in a remote, bucolic setting while constantly fighting off the attempts of power-obsessed authorities intent on destroying their way of life.

 Dances With Wolves, right? Not so fast…

The latest vanity production from Tom Cruise couldn't be more derivative if he'd asked Kevin Costner to direct; instead, that chore falls to Ed Zwick, (Glory, Legends of the Fall) whose skill in creating luscious period pieces often tempts him to explore themes more profound than his skills--or the audiences' patience--can easily endure. In this stunningly filmed effort, set in late 19th century Japan, Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a highly decorated veteran of the famous 7th Calvary who's hired by representatives of The Emperor to train troops seeking to crush the rebellious Katsumoto, (Ken Wanatabe) a charismatic samurai leader who fears that the rapid Westernization of his country is eroding its traditional cultural values. A drunken cynic ashamed by his participation in atrocities committed against American Plains' Indians, Algren is quickly ordered, over his strong protests, to put inexperienced conscripts into combat before they're properly instructed in the use of their new rifles; in the ensuing disaster, Algren is captured by the man he's been sent half way around the world to defeat. 

So far, so good; but Cruise & Co. now leave the makings of a superior action film behind and go on that all-illusive quest for meaning, at which point the movie descends through the pretentious into bottomless silliness. Katsumoto's passion for Japan's traditional isolationism somehow co-exists with his ability to speak perfect English; he's also sufficiently knowledgeable of current political and military affairs in America that he can quiz Algren about General George Custer's defeat at the battle of the Little Big Horn. Katsumoto quickly diagnoses his captive's fatalistic bravery as a massive case of unresolved guilt over trading a warrior's honor for battlefield success; winning isn’t everything Katsumoto advises, lecturing his American prisoner on everything from personal honor to poetry writing, and ultimately advising the now sober Yankee, in a bit of Zen dizziness, to "live in the moment". Katsumoto demands that his widowed sister Taka, (whose husband was killed by Algren) to house and care for the prisoner, giving Algren's libido yet another reason to succumb to his enforced surroundings. He recovers from his wounds, inexplicably trains as a samurai under his captor's watchful eye, and absorbs the essence of the warrior code while Katsumoto negotiates with The Emperor for a return to more traditional ways…

Despite the script's sophomoric focus on Algren's psychological and moral quandaries, the movie works for a while, in large part because of Zwick's handsomely created Japanese settings and the acting skills of Algren's hosts; Wanatabe invests his Katsumoto with a commanding gravitas worthy of Japan's legendary actor Toshiro Mifune, and a stunning actress by the name of Koyuki injects just the right amount of reserve into her portrayal of the unwilling caregiver to her husband's killer. But Cruise, who begins his characterization with an effective dose of the off-putting ennui that worked so well in Magnolia, quickly succumbs to the temptation of so many American movie stars, substituting excessive screen time and too many glassy-eyed close-ups of purported inner-conflict for real character development. His tortured cavalry officer doesn't grow into deeper self-knowledge; he simply morphs into Katusmoto's right hand man so the film can remain resolutely focused on its star. To achieve this end, Samurai's plot lurches through a series of devices which permit Cruise to reverse roles, freeing a now-imprisoned Katsumoto from the Emperor's troops so the final battle scene can be staged. But that's not enough for Cruise; at film's end, he's found lecturing a victorious but shamed Emperor on how to remain true to his precious heritage, before returning to the samurai village and the arms of the waiting Taka…

Enough. At a ponderous 2 and a half hours of running time, Samurai manages to bury superbly orchestrated battle scenes, richly evocative costuming and splendid set design under so much talk-show philosophizing audiences that wind up rooting for Algren's demise, not Katsumoto's; the result is a bowdlerized study of the role of the samurai in feudal Japan, a dreadfully weak substitute for the work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, often called his country's John Ford. He produced a number of serious examinations of this period in Japanese history and the contradictory moral challenges faced by its warrior class. That director's The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo both provide a better-educated and vastly more entertaining experience than this terrific looking but synthetic Hollywood spectacle.          

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