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The Last Samurai

Let us pretend that The Last Samurai takes in some fantastical historical otherworld. Clearly, that's the only way it's going to work.

To tie it into real history is too disturbing. Not only does Tom Cruise "regain his honor" by betraying his country's interests and giving himself over to a ritualized culture of warriors content to live by the old ways (please try not to draw any modern parallels kaffkaffjohnwalkerlindhkaff), but the events of this film also topple the first domino in a line that would culminate in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor some seventy years later.

But what does it matter when you have a movie star so damned good at being a star, so intense, so handsome and so charismatic?

It matters a lot actually. A story of Japan that would be far more effective and inspiring without the American, The Last Samurai won't be the last Tom Cruise vehicle by a long shot. But it's a shame that director Edward Zwick gave in to the impulse to make Cruise the star, when really the last samurai should be Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Oh, why blame Zwick? It's Cruise who needs to rein himself in, an actor of spotty but real talent who can recognize a quality project but too often lets his own mythos overpower it.

The man with the million-watt smile plays Captain Nathan Algren, a drunken soldier who somehow escaped the massacre of "Custer's Last Stand." Destroyed and disgusted by the legend that has clouded over Custer's incompetence, Algren drinks to forget the innocent lives he himself took.

Not sharing the same guilty conscience, his former commander Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) offers Algren a proposition. The Japanese need to quell a rebellion of samurai that stand in the way of modernization. To do that, they need an army, and one thing Algren does well is teach men to kill.

As seems to be par for the course of a John Logan script, few characters get any subtle shading. Algren comes close, but mostly due to a robe borrowed not from the samurai he kills but from Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. He has inner conflict, but it is still pretty black and white. As the representative of American interests, Bagley shows nothing beyond dark avarice, so Goldwyn can just offer his heavy-lidded stare and collect a paycheck just like his character.

Appearing too briefly but offering some life, Billy Connolly at least amuses as Algren's friend who has chosen to take war seriously, but not himself.

Which leaves Katsumoto. Though the last samurai (who is actually based on a real person) still only has two dimensions, Watanabe inhabits them to the fullest. It's not just Algren who gazes on him with wonder; Cruise must be taking notes on how to command the screen without looking so constipated.

So Cruise has to keep stealing it back, and this is where the movie star moments come into play. Rarely will you see a movie employing so many overt tricks to make an actor the center of attention. Marvel at all the low camera angles making Cruise tower over much taller actors (i.e. pretty much everybody in the film except the kids). Just in case you don't appreciate how
hard Cruise worked to learn how to do his own swordfighting stunts, Zwick will show you a couple of the conflicts twice. That there might be no doubt, they're in slow motion every time. That also adds to their importance somehow.

However, when legitimately focusing on Japanese culture and not Algren's understanding of it, The Last Samurai holds fascination. Any time the samurai themselves go into action, it's gripping. You wonder why these guys were so effective? It's damned scary seeing them riding toward you on horseback, even if it seems silly that they've got flagpoles on their backs.

Among them, Cruise just looks silly. Perhaps he should have built upon that, instead of letting things devolve into an impossible resolution.

If you can get past his posturing, The Last Samurai is entertaining, and could spark some legitimate historical interest. But it doesn't reach as far as it could if there weren't a real movie star holding so hard onto its back.


Derek McCaw

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