The Last Samurai Review

by Mark R. Leeper (markrleeper AT yahoo DOT com)
December 9th, 2003

    (a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

    CAPSULE: THE LAST SAMURAI chooses some overly
    familiar pieces from other films and assembles them
    in an enjoyable--though not always believable--
    package. Cruise plays a burned out and alcoholic
    hero of the Indian wars who around 1876 is captured
    by a samurai leading a rebellion to reject foreign
    influence. The American learns to respect and
    embrace the way of the Samurai. The battle scenes
    are splendid, the script is not. Rating: 7 (0 to
    10), high +1 (-4 to +4)

When I see a Tom Cruise movie these days I always have the knee- jerk reaction to think of it as a vanity piece. Most of his films seem rather thin and intended to show him doing feats of physical prowess. He is a sort of the modern-day Douglas Fairbanks. The problem is that description fits too many actors. What sets Tom Cruise apart from the Vin Diesels is that Cruise can act and once in a while he gets a really good original script. Viewed from a hilltop, the script of THE LAST SAMURAI looks pretty good. An American in mid-1800s Japan--a Japan torn between holding on to its feudal traditions and embracing the rapid changes of the modern world. The problem is that when you actually get into the story, every bit of it seems to have been borrowed from someplace else. The script seems to be SHOGUN crossed with DANCES WITH WOLVES and laced with THE WIND AND THE LION, themselves not that far apart from each other. There are sub-plots that have been years ago worn thin with overuse. Cruise's character is humbled by the fact that he is hopelessly bad at Japanese styles of fighting and also is picked on by bullies. He likes an attractive woman who has every reason to hate him. He is living among Japanese rebels who to his foreign mind dress in funny ways and have funny customs. Gee, I wonder what they will do with these plot threads? In spite of the "stranger in a strange land" structure of the film, the viewer never finds himself on a piece of plot that he does not know where it is going.

Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a hero of the Indian wars and a veteran of Custer's 7th Cavalry. Cruise has seen too much of the viciousness of the sadistic and one-sided war against the Indians. Nightmares and flashbacks of the barbarism of the whites in those wars trouble him. He is an alcoholic burnout traveling as the chief attraction of a firearms show. Even this less than ambitious position he cannot hold. He is hired to travel to Japan to modernize the Emperor Meiji's new army and prepare them to fight a rebellion of samurai who are bound to the Bushido tradition and do not want to give it up for Western technology. (It is well to remember that any historical film is about both the time it is set and the time is it made. Similarities to the politics of the Middle East are probably intentional.) Chief among the rebels is the guerilla Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe). Algren is called upon to lead his under-trained army against this Katsumoto.

In the battle Algren finds a respect for Japanese fighting techniques and is captured by the enemy. Katsumoto believes Algren has the spirit of his totem, the tiger. Algren may be a little surprised to find he still has that spirit himself. Such a man one does not just put to death. Katsumoto decides this is a man worthy of studying and keeps him a prisoner in the hopes of talking to the man and understanding both Algren and the sort of enemy the Americans are. He places Algren in the house of the comely widow of a man Algren killed. With the setup complete, director Edward Zwick and writer John Logan are now free to make the film look good and to let events follow their natural film cliche course.

What would have saved this film from cliche at this point? Logan could have taught the viewer a little about Bushido, the code of the samurai. Of this philosophy we get one quick lesson in the importance of concentration. We see a testimonial that with Bushido Cruise becomes a better fighter and person, but we never get into the meaning of Bushido or how the samurai thinks. For this reason we never get any understanding of Katsumoto. Algren supposedly does come to understand his captor, but the viewer is left behind. Like with an infomercial Zwick spends more time with the promised results of Applied Bushido than with the philosophy's nature and content. Zwick also wastes time with a superfluous romance.

The film has three endings, which is two too many. The first one would have been the most effective. An Akira Kurosawa would have left it there on the battlefield. The second ending one slops over onto the silly side. And I swear the third ending is borrowed from a particular Frank Capra film. The film generally has a good look with a nice battle sequence toward the end. But scenes of a then modern Japanese city seem a little digitized.
A film that immerses us in the Japan of the samurai cannot be too bad and in fact this one has a lot to like. But it falls short of the intelligence that was within its grasp. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

(Personal note: it was a little ironic seeing this film about Japan's conflicts with the West as I did on a Sunday, December 7.)

Mark R. Leeper
[email protected]
Copyright 2003 Mark R. Leeper

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