The Last Samurai Movie Review

Towards the end of Ed Zwick's The Last Samurai, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) washes away the memories of his brutal past and clears his path to honor and redemption with these words: "A man does what he can until his destiny is revealed."

No dice. For nearly three hours I did what I could to try to care about where this self-important vanity project was going, and concluded that it is Tom Cruise's destiny to never win an Academy Award.

Cruise plays Algren, a veteran of Little Big Horn who carries a hip flask worth of bad memories with him and plays the role of "hero" in a traveling Winchester rifles sales presentation. When his sniveling former commanding officer Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn) recruits him to help train the newly enlisted Japanese army, he seizes the opportunity to collect a fat paycheck, crawl inside of a bottle, and wait for a bullet to catch up with him. But when Algren is forced to lead unprepared troops into battle against a rebel faction, he is captured by samurai leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) and forced into mountain top detox where he achieves a moment of clarity about his wounded warrior spirit - and embraces the samurai way, a culture facing extinction in the process of the modernization of Japan.

As Algren, Cruise broods. He peers. He gazes. He surveys. For some reason, Cruise seems to have confused the art of acting with the act of looking at something really hard. And the charm that makes him so likable in other films feels out of place in The Last Samurai, bringing an alien goofiness to a film that should be steeped in wistful sadness. When Cruise tries out a few fighting moves in his new Japanese robes, it's hard not to think of him dancing in his underwear in Risky Business. And when he demands sake in the middle of the night to fight off alcohol withdrawal it plays like comic relief, not the torturous trials of a man undergoing a transformation. For these reasons, and doing a less-than-convincing job of telegraphing the depths of Algren's desperation and the dignity of his rebirth, Cruise should be denied Oscar gold... despite what the end-of-the-year studio marketing machine is saying.

The veteran Japanese actors that populate the film only underscore what is missing from Cruise's acting. As Katsumoto, Ken Watanabe brings an awesome balance of warmth, ferocity and sadness to Katsumoto in a performance that overshadows Cruise every time they share the screen. And when Algren apologizes to Taka, his ostensible love interest, for killing her husband in battle, all eyes are on relative newcomer Koyuki, who undercuts Cruise's heartfelt but transparent emoting with a mixture of hatred, relief, embarrassment, and deep sadness.

While Ed Zwick's (Glory, Legends of the Fall) direction is somewhat unimaginative, it is at least unobtrusive enough to let the audience get swept away by the picturesque Japanese countryside and meticulous period sets. The final battle scene is a sight to behold, with modern artillery meeting swords and arrows in a glorious display of military strategy and carnage. And the epic scope of the story, pitting an ancient Eastern culture against the march of Western progress at a major turning point in the history of Japan, hangs the actions of the film over a frame of recognizable virtues such as honor, loyalty, and valor.

But with so much of interest going on in Japan in the late 1870s, it's a shame that Zwick passed up a wider lens that could encompass more political intrigue and focused on Algren's 12 steps to warrior greatness and redemption. The Last Samurai might have been designed to give Cruise a chance to shine, but to the detriment of the overall film.

The DVD includes a commentary from Zwick and an entire second disc of extrras: nine documentary featurettes and two deleted scenes (both available with commentary -- the first one's a must-see).

The last samurai gets his first beating.


Comments

The Last Samurai Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, 2003

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