Directed by Edward Zwick (1998's "The Siege"), "The Last Samurai"
plays like a shallow, cut-rate version of his 1989 Civil War masterpiece,
"Glory." An epic love letter to the Japanese samurai culture, the
film's well-meaning ideology ultimately collapses in a film that falls
victim to muddled storytelling and thinly drawn characters whom we
never get a firm grasp on. When all is said and done, only some beautifully
photographed, CGI-enhanced vistas (courtesy of cinematographer John
Toll) and a stunning climactic battle sequence manage to stand out.
Opening in 1876 San Francisco, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a sad,
boozy former Civil War hero who has lost direction in his life. When
he is offered a grand sum of money he can't refuse, Nathan finds himself
traveling to Japan to teach modern warfare to the Emperor's (Shichinosuke
Nakamura) troops, who wish to stop the renegade tactics of nearby
samurai rebels led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). When their face-off
goes awry, Nathan is spared from death and held captive in the samurai
village. Finding himself living with Katsumoto's resentful sister,
Taka (Koyuki), whose husband he killed on the battlefield, Nathan
gradually becomes sympathetic to the samurai's causethat of stopping
the rising modernism in Japanand enraptured in their way of life.
When he is finally given the chance to return to Tokyo and pick up
his prior commission following the winter months of 1876 a nd early
1877, Nathan has changed so much in his viewpoints that he is unsure
of what to do: resume a job commitment that will give him money, or
swap sides and risk his life for something he actually believes in.
"The Last Samurai" wishes to deem the importance of loyalty, standing
by your comrades, and dying for a meaningful cause, but it is a questionable
message the film fails to persuade the viewer on. Even at a hefty
running time of nearly two-and-a-half hour, it is amazing how little
depth or passion is brought to any of it. The predicament that lies
before Nathan and the samurai warriors is laid out solely on the surface
and not satisfactorily developed. Why, really, does Nathan garner
an affinity for the samurai culture, going as far as learning fluent
Japanese in a matter of a couple months? Writer-director Edward Zwick
and co-writers John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz never salvage a
plausible explanation for it. And why should viewers side with them
and actually car e about the outcome of the fight when the culture
was more emphatically and poignantly displayed even in only a few
wordless sequences in 2003's "Lost in Translation?" "The Last Samurai"
is so built on common Hollywood movie cliches and superficial, jingoistic
messages that it achieves no identity of its own.
The relationship that builds between Nathan and Katsumoto, first of
intolerance and then of keen understanding, should have been the heart
of the story but comes off as little more than an afterthought. There
is no genuine soul to their scenes together, only a spew of wannabe-existentialist
conversations that would be right at home in Terrence Malick's staggering
1998 war drama, "The Thin Red Line," if they didn't lack that film's
achieved profundity. Likewise, the borderline-embarrassing romantic
subplot between Nathan and Taka offers no reason for why these two
have an attraction or human connection for each other. Their love
story is nothing more than sheepish sideway glances and no heart.
Other relationships, including the strained one between Nathan and
his former commander, Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn), and another
between Nathan and a British translator-photojournalist (Timothy Spall),
are vapidly rendered.
Tom Cruise (2002's "Minority Report") has never given a bad performance,
and his take on Nathan is no exception. Cruise ably provides a conflicted
intensity to his role of a man who has been emotionally lost for so
long he has forgotten what it means to be passionate about something;
it is too bad, then, that the thing that breaks him of this afflictionhis
run-in with the samurai cultureis so effectively inert. As Taka, who
speaks all of about five or six lines in the whole movie, Koyuki is
a pretty f ace who knows how to make pensive expressions and not much
else. Strangely, the American-Japanese romance between Nathan and
Taka somewhat recalls and monumentally pales in comparison to the
far more powerful one between Ethan Hawke and Youki Kudoh in 1999's
exquisite "Snow Falling on Cedars."
Even with its confused messages of sacrifice and loyalty during war,
the climactic battle sequence between the Emperor's forces and the
samurai warriors is a technical triumph of cinematography and editing
that captures one's attention and doesn't let go. It also holds the
film's most hauntingly poetic shot, which the title blatantly foreshadows.
Unfortunately, what comes in the 100-plus minutes before this enrapturing
30-minute conclusion is not worth the time or the wait. "The Last
Samurai" wants to be a cogent, contemplative Oscar contender, and
makes no bones about it. The result is something quite different,
howev er, sinking even as it cluelessly wears its unconvincing, paper-thin
emotions on its sleeve.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman