Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise, superbly confident and enthusiastic) was a decorated
Civil War hero, but has fallen into an alcoholic stupor after witnessing Native
American atrocities during the conflict. Propositioned by a Japanese
industrialist to travel to Japan and train their troops in the latest in combat
tactics, Algren takes the job to escape his demons. Upon arrival, he learns that
the enemy is a small band of samurai (led by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe), who
are using their traditional ways to protect the Emperor. During their initial
skirmish between the samurai and the contemporary troops, Algren is captured and
taken to live with his new enemies. Over time, Algren learns
to respect the ways of the samurai, and he fights for them when his former
troops reassemble for one final charge.
If there's any element viewers can rely on finding in an Edward Zwick film, it
would be enthusiasm and confidence in storytelling. It has served him well in
epics like "Legends of the Fall" and "Glory," but has also torpedoed his
interesting failures like "The Siege." "The Last Samurai" (IMDb listing) falls in the middle of
the Zwick scale of earnestness; it's a scorching epic action film, but too
concerned with appearances to truly hit its target.
The opening of the film sets the tone appropriately, setting up a story that
deals directly with the principles of honor and the obsolescence of the samurai.
The tale does bear a striking resemblance to Kevin Costner's "Dances With
Wolves," with the idea of a Caucasian assimilating himself heroically in a
foreign world. The climactic battle scene also recalls "Braveheart" in all those
uncomfortable, litigious ways that dampens the impact of what is being screened.
Screenwriter John Logan isn't ashamed to crib from these two earlier films
repeatedly, but what is more troubling is his restraint in screenwriting and
Zwick's instincts toward melodrama.
"The Last Samurai" is a constipated experience; a film sliced in half in
ambition and direction, and never quite coming together like it has the
potential to do. Zwick keeps the tone in time with the samurai way: no emotion
and no reacting. But he can't hold back in piling on the thick sentimentality
and a feeble romantic subplot between Algren and a samurai widow. This doesn't
do much for any type of honestly emotional catharsis that "Samurai" might want
to provide, with Zwick keeping the crucial potency of the story hidden behind
poised actors with the wind to their backs, and speeches that bring the
characters to the crippling verge of tears. The film is respectful to the
samurai culture and the code of honor they live by, but nothing is deeply felt
about the way of life outside of an idyllic peaceful village and the occasional
politically charged moment. The restraint contradicts the melodrama, and the
pair do not make for good company.
Not failing the film are the production values, which are out of this world.
Cinematographer John Toll ("Legends of the Fall") skillfully sells New Zealand
landscapes as Japan, and production designer Lilly Kilvert ("Heartbreakers")
creates a lush world for Algren's adventures, bringing in a rich representation
of traditional Japanese culture and history. The Japanese supporting cast is
also first rate, backing Cruise's expected complete commitment to the tale with
authority and passionate performances - especially Ken Watanabe, whose blazing
brand of internal leadership matches Cruise note for note.
I also enjoyed the certain asides in the story that brought excitement and
invention to the film, most notably, a battle between the samurai and a group of
invading ninjas. Besides a smalltime fanboy delight in the sequence (ninjas!),
it is one of the rare moments in the film that isn't uncomfortably derivative or
bathed in a self-important glow. Zwick lets the film roll off (albeit in a
uncharacteristic blizzard of edits) in an exceptional sequence of pure bloodshed
and samurai action that provides more insight about the characters than any held
gaze or speech.
All the parts that make up a great epic are on display in "The Last Samurai,"
including the obscenely, needlessly long running time (a slow 150 minutes). But
it just doesn't mix together acceptably, leaving all the combat, romance,
enthusiasm, and history one long, faintly uninspiring experience.
Filmfodder Grade: C-