“The Last Samurai” is as rich in period and historical background as it is deficient in fresh dramatic and thematic ideas. This luxuriously appointed actioner about an American soldier who takes his fighting skills to Japan circa 1876 is already known in the trade as “Dances With Samurai.” Edward Zwick’s transcultural epic is transparently inspired not only by Kevin Costner’s Indian saga but by the underdog heroics of “Braveheart.” Far too dominated by Tom Cruise when an ensemble of interesting supporting characters would have helped flesh the story out considerably, as they did in Mel Gibson’s film, this Warner Bros. release will ride the star’s name to brawny but perhaps not stellar B.O.
Clearly enamored of the culture it examines while resolutely remaining an outsider’s romanticization of it, yarn is disappointingly content to recycle familiar attitudes about the nobility of ancient cultures, Western despoilment of them, liberal historical guilt, the unrestrainable greed of capitalists and the irreducible primacy of Hollywood movie stars. In a handsome but borderline ponderous manner that most resembles its director’s approach in “Legends of the Fall,” it also feeds on scenic splendor, a key moment in Japan’s opening to the West, and some capably staged action that pays due homage to Akira Kurosawa, among other cinematic samurai masters.
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After a decade in the Indian campaigns on the heels of Civil War service, Cruise’s Captain Nathan Algren is a disillusioned, drunken wreck, a paid spokesman for the Winchester gun company who can barely talk or shoot straight. Nevertheless, he receives an offer from a nattily attired Japanese businessman, Omura (well-known Japanese director Masato Harada), to come to Japan to instruct the Imperial Army in the techniques of modern warfare in an arrangement that will also greatly benefit both Omura and Winchester.
These early scenes are seriously underwhelming simply because it’s clearly beyond Cruise’s reach to play a drunk; the actor is simply incapable of impersonating a man who loses control. Fortunately, he’s soon forced to go on the wagon; after arriving in Yokohama and conducting some preliminary training, Nathan’s far-from-ready unit is sent to take on a renegade samurai band that’s attacked a railway that just happens to belong to Omura.
Hopelessly outmatched, the emperor’s men are massacred, and the defeated Japanese officer commits seppuku. But the exotic Nathan is spared and spirited away to the samurai’s remote mountain village. Pic downshifts into a calmer, quieter mood here, as Nathan, uncertain of what’s in store for him, recovers from wounds, dons native garb, picks up some Japanese and slowly gets to know the leader of the community, the imposing Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).
In unlikely command of decent English, Katsumoto once fought in the Emperor’s Guard and was a personal teacher of the emperor. But offended by his country’s sudden embrace of the new and the youthful emperor’s call for samurai to lay down their arms, Katsumoto has decided to make a last stand for tradition, for the ways of his ancestors. As he represents such venerable values as loyalty, nobility and discipline against the implied contamination of Western-led “progress,” Katsumoto immediately becomes the story’s most compelling figure, a status enhanced by Watanabe’s forcefully charismatic performance.
Katsumoto’s rigorous, highly evolved approach to life deeply impresses Nathan, who is still haunted by memories of his participation in the slaughter of Indians while under the command of Gen. George Custer, whom he hated. Ironically, Katsumoto has always admired the foolhardy Indian fighter, albeit from afar, due to his willingness to fight to the death against great odds.
Surrounded by Katsumoto’s expert swordsmen, the American dedicates himself to mastering their skills, taking plenty of hits and spills before earning their respect. Katsumoto fully accepts Nathan as a brother-in-arms when the latter comes to his urgent aide during a murderous ninja attack on the village. Less accepting is Taka (Koyuki), Katsumoto’s beautiful sister and the wife of a man Nathan killed in the initial clash. Long humiliated by Nathan’s presence in her home, which her brother has mandated, Taka exchanges many furtive glances with her unwanted guest but only slowly softens her attitude toward him.
After a trip to Tokyo results in Katsumoto’s humiliation, arrest and close-call escape, the now-obsolete warrior is ready to commit seppuku. But rousing his friend with an account of the battle of Thermopylae, Nathan hatches a plan by which their band of 500 might entrap the Imperial Army’s two regiments and stand a fighting chance to discourage it, if not ultimately beat it. If the samurai must go down, at least they will do so fighting.
For this story of a quasi-suicidal last stand, it would have helped if Nathan had possessed a mad devil-may-care streak, a reckless death wish that would have propelled him into insane combat mode. But once again, what you see is Cruise dedicatedly laboring to be fierce, courageous and resourceful in a way that seems merely like a 19th century variation on his approach to tasks in the “Mission: Impossible” pictures.
Spotlighting tactics that vividly recall the guerrilla warfare techniques of “Braveheart,” wherein the few got the better of the many for a while, the climactic battles feature a very high casualty rate and are unsettling due to the inequity of the arms used by the respective forces — cannons and Howitzers by the army, only swords and arrows by the samurai. Ultimate result is a foregone conclusion but final twists, involving Nathan’s fate and an imperially dictated comeuppance, feel phony and tacked on as a contrived sop to conventional audience expectations.
With ace lenser John Toll behind the camera, “The Last Samurai” is physically impressive. New Zealand and Japanese locations give the surroundings an air of unspoiled purity and beauty, while Lilly Kilvert’s production design and Ngila Dickson’s costumes are rich in eye-catching detail but not self-consciously exotic.
Except for the battles, the film is not really epic in scope, although there is some nice scene-setting in Yokohama harbor and a particularly convincing long-perspective shot of 1876 San Francisco. Combat is effectively handled in a realistic vein, with no attempt at fanciful “Crouching Tiger”-like action. Hans Zimmer, whose 100th motion picture score this is, occasionally inflects the instrumentations of his industrious compositions with Japanese motifs.
As far as Cruise is concerned, there is far too much the feeling of the camera needing to be on him as much as possible. Sporting beard, flowing locks and his trademark intense seriousness, the actor conveys his own enthusiasm and respect for the culture the picture examines, but only indicates Nathan’s inner mutation, which is the key dramatic movement in the story. The intent of his characterization is clear — to find redemption and reclaim his true self — but minus much illumination.
Aside from Watanabe, other thesps have one-note characters to play. As a Brit long in Japan who gives Nathan his initial bearings and sporadically helps out, Timothy Spall brings effervescent good humor to the sort of role once held under patent by Robert Morley. Tony Goldwyn cuts an ambiguous figure as a fellow army officer of Nathan’s whom the latter hates for his unquestioning manifest-destiny attitude, while young martial arts newcomer Shin Koyamada shows marked screen presence as Katsumoto’s expert archer son.