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The Last Samurai   C+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Edward Zwick
Writers: John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick
Cast: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, Masato Harada.

Review by Rob Vaux

Tom Cruise is a fine actor, but The Last Samurai is not his finest moment. And because of his presence, the film adheres to the formulaic necessities of a star vehicle instead of becoming something truly great. Watching it is a frustrating experience: you can see what it strives for, only to have that potential snatched away time and again. It's not entirely Cruise's fault (the same mistakes might have been made with any big-name actor) but that doesn't make it any less of a letdown.

Credit The Last Samurai with ambition at least. Its grand storyline aims for the loftiest heights, and director Edward Zwick doesn't become so enamored with the landscapes and battlefields that he forgets the human element. His Dances With Wolves-style premise of a tormented U.S. soldier who finds peace by embracing the creed of the samurai has plenty of kick, and the production has surely done its homework. The evocation of 19th-century Japan is gorgeous, supplemented by a script (from Zwick, John Logan, and Marshall Herskovitz) which pays close attention to a culture on the brink of extinction. Nippon of 1876 is ready to join the modern world, as railroads, industry, and mechanized warfare spread across the islands. But such developments run counter to the millennia-old code of bushido: the warrior's lifestyle that emphasizes honor, enlightenment, and inner harmony. Devotion to its precepts has allowed the samurai to protect their Emperor for hundreds of years... and yet it has suddenly become a liability. What good is a poet swordsman against cannons or repeating rifles?

That question is irrelevant to Lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who sees bushido as the soul of the nation he loves. Garbed in outdated armor and wielding little more than a katana, he fights a losing war against Japan's encroaching mechanization. Zwick has a good sense of his dilemma -- both personally and from a military perspective -- and The Last Samurai succeeds best when it centers on the particulars of his life. The mountain village where he lives is exquisitely rendered, peppered with fascinating (and well-researched) details on bushido and Japanese culture in general. The film also lets us understand how men like Katsumoto could successfully resist a more modern army... and how Westerners could easily misconstrue his actions as savagery. Watanabe makes a strong impression as a good man out of his era, giving The Last Samurai a solid fulcrum for the well-paced action.

But then comes Cruise, playing the alcoholic Capt. Nathan Algren who arrives to train the Emperor's new army. Captured in battle, he finds himself a prisoner amid Katsumoto's clan, where he gradually comes to appreciate their noble philosophy. The trouble starts with Cruise's performance; he feels wrong for the part from the get-go and doesn't improve matters by laying it on thick with Algren's angst. The opening and closing scenes are badly misplayed as well -- giving Cruise the spotlight to near-embarrassing effect -- and while the middle sections improve somewhat, the lead never really finds his groove.

More importantly, however, the constant focus on Algren fatally dilutes the film's other assets. The struggle of a vanishing lifestyle, the beauty of bushido and what it represents, all of it is delivered through an unappealing western surrogate. The samurai are relegated to the back burner, upstaged by Algren's struggles, Algren's journey, and Algren's quest to reclaim his honor. Somehow, the gaijin round eyes exemplifies their code more than they do. Why? Because he's on the poster of course. One look at Cruise -- borderline laughable in his Japanese armor -- will tell you how wrong-headed this thinking is. It's sad that a white actor is required to convey such material to a mainstream audience, instead of letting Watanabe's more compelling hero carry the day.

Zwick stumbles on several other significant points, including a silly ninja attack that brings the proceedings to a halt (shocking considering the film's other sterling battles), and a bevy of uninspiring supporting characters that reduce the likes of Timothy Spall and Billy Connelly to paying the bills. Whenever you think The Last Samurai might pull off something brilliant, it trips into banality, leaving us with little more than pretty pictures and a naked pander for awards. This is the kind of film that Oscar likes, but noble intentions do not a masterpiece make. The wrong priorities can cause more damage than any strength can counter -- a lesson Katsumoto knows, but The Last Samurai is too slow to pick up on.

Review published 12.01.2003.

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