THE LAST SAMURAI

2 Stars
Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 127 minutes
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In the career of any creative individual there are likely to be high points and low points. An artistic misstep is one thing, however. An all out, flip-on-a-banana-peel pratfall quite another. The latest from director Edward Zwick represents a literal fall from “Glory.”
The filmmaker rose from the ranks of the small screen (“Thirtysomething”) to the big screen largely on the merits of the powerful 1989 Civil War saga. Fourteen years later, Zwick revisits the era with a bigger budget and a bigger star but the result is a longwinded hodgepodge of clichés sadly lacking in the earlier picture’s economy, energy and focus.
Tom Cruise stars, though one could easily imagine the movie built around anyone from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Sylvester Stallone. The actor gives his flattest performance in years as a one-time Union hero who, in the film’s early innings, inexplicably has turned to a life as an alcoholic sideshow performer. Perhaps the audience is meant to infer he’s chosen this path as a result of being haunted by war-related memories (his unit took part in a Mi Lai-like raid on a village). If so, this is something of a stretch given the scope and body count of the Civil War. If post traumatic stress had been a one-way ticket to heavy drinking and carnival employment, performers would have outnumbered patrons.
Despite the sorry state of his life, Cruise’s character is the first guy the US government looks to when a lucrative arms deal with Japan presents itself and somebody has to go whip that country’s antiquated army into a lean, mean, up to date fighting machine. The whiskey-swilling captain crosses the ocean, introduces his new troops to the American firearm and, just as they’re starting to get the hang of things, is ordered to take them into battle against an army of renegade samurai responsible for an insurrection in protest of the nation’s rampant westernization.
One of the movie’s few entertaining sequences features the first glimpse of the legendary warriors, who still fight on horseback with bows, arrows, swords and spears. His unit suddenly finds itself in a fog enshrouded forest surrounded by unseen enemy forces (nice move, Tom). When they attack, charging through the mist like living nightmares, Cruise and his sorry recruits don’t stand a chance. In a turn of events which will become an irritating trend, Cruise is the only soldier who survives the bloody engagement. Impressed by his fighting spirit, the leader of the samurai spares his life and takes him prisoner.
Tom spends the next few months in an 1870s equivalent of rehab. He dries out, takes long introspective walks through the samurais’ scenic mountain encampment and commits himself to living according to their code of discipline and self-perfection. The Japanese TV star Ken Watanabe plays the rebel leader. Of the film’s principles, his is the most interesting performance and his character the one which seems least like a cardboard figure in a cut-out epic.
It goes without saying the two enemies become friends. Just as Kevin Costner did in “Dances With Wolves,” Cruise embraces the ways of his one time enemy. A born again samurai, he even winds up in a climactic face off against American forces.
It’s an awfully long slog to that last act, though. One made snoozy by a merciless combination of wooden acting, borrowed themes, predictable developments, epic pretense and poorly choreographed fight scenes. Zwick’s battles are blizzards of quick cuts suggesting speed and clamor but making it all but impossible for the viewer to follow the action, action which is curiously sanitized.
Watanabe’s charismatic performance and a couple of colorful minor characters aside, “The Last Samurai” has little to recommend it. Cruise’s journey of cultural discovery is a shorthand rehash of Costner’s, his character a fallow, one note creation. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the film’s release coincides with award season. I doubt the most rabid Warner Brothers employee considers this overblown “Pokemon” cartoon a serious contender. A maker of serious money, maybe, but certainly nothing more.
Cruise, then, has done his job. It’s Zwick who fails to take care of business here. In the past couple of decades few directors have made as sustained a cinematic study of war. “Glory,” “Courage Under Fire” and “Legends of the Fall” may not have been great movies, but each contained moments of true greatness. “The Last Samurai” may have more moments than any of those but, in this case, the only thing you’re likely to find great is your sense of disappointment.
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Posted on December 8, 2003 in Reviews by
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