Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai (2003)


(director/writer: Edward Zwick; screenwriters: John Logan/Marshall Herskovitz; cinematographer: John Toll; editor: Steven Rosenblum; music: Hans Zimmer; cast: Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren), Ken Watanabe (Katsumoto), Tony Goldwyn (Colonel Bagley), Timothy Spall (Simon Graham), Koyuki (Taka), Hiroyuki Sanada (Ujio), Masato Harada (Omura), Shichinosuke Nakamura (Emperor Meiji), Billy Connolly (Zebulon Gant); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick, Tom Engelman, Scott Kroopf; Warner Brothers; 2003-United States/New Zealand/Japan-in English and Japanese with English subtitles)
Well made hokum.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Well made hokum. Too bad Tom Cruise plays the John Wayne part, in a physical role that had me doubting if he can fight his way out of his bed never mind take on the emperor’s army almost single-handedly. Now the Duke taking on the entire Japanese military forces in Iwo Jima, that seemed more plausible than little Tom changing from a cavalry uniform to one of Mifune’s spiked armor outfits and in the process mastering the art of Japanese swordplay almost overnight. It’s a misty-eyed nostalgic Western dressed up as a samurai actioner. If you want a big-budgeted belabored version of The Magnificent Seven played as the Seven Samurai, where our hero is content to showboat his narcissistic talents as a warrior with the heart of a lion–then you’re in luck this holiday season. There’s no big problem seemingly going from one culture genre exploited in the movies to another. It’s as if John Ford is disguised in a Kurosowa costume, as Hollywood and Tokyo merge to make up their own version of history with a mixture of fact and fancy and wish-fulfillment. Edward Zwick (“Glory”/”Courage Under Fire”) efficiently directs within the studio system safe conduct code a predictable but rousing action epic destined to be a box office smash and nothing more. He also co-writes with John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz, loading it up as a heavy-handed hero-worshiping adventure tale about the ugly violence of war and the honorable men who found honor and bravery in fighting, even if their wars were mindless. If you are taken with wide-sweeping battle scenes and panoramic storytelling and could care less about drama, real emotions, history and character development, I could see you enjoying this unmoving spectacle for the close-up action scenes and the stunning cinematography provided by the talented John Toll. It requires little of the viewer but to be there and relish in the daredevil swordplay and battle between the ennobled bow and arrow tribal fighters against the rifles and canons of a professional army supplied by those dirty American arms manufacturers in concert with other unscrupulous big business intersts.

The film opens to the corny platitude “Japan was made by a handful of brave men… willing to die for what seems to have become a forgotten word . . . honor.” In its over 2 hours, The Last Samurai never stains itself with real politik or a care about its ridiculous portrayal of a Hollywood actor teaching the Japanese to be samurais. Its stilted acting and glorifying of the traditionalist soldiers from the past ad absurdum as the most noble of all men and comparing the sad end of the Western frontier days with the last days of the samurai, goes on until this adventure just ends on the bloody battlefield only to live another day to end with an unearned dove message about finding peace of mind through fighting a good war.

Tom Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren the now disgruntled U.S. cavalryman and Civil War Medal of Honor hero, who despises his own kind and changes allegiances. Algren is first seen in San Francisco in 1876 as an obnoxious drunk shilling in a theater act for Winchester Rifles, who has become unglued by the news that his arrogant old commander George Custer has just led his men to a needless slaughter. Recruited by the offer of big money the soulless warrior ships off to Japan to train the young Emperor Meiji’s conscripted peasant army for battle against the rebellious samurais led by the fierce Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). His character was loosely based on the historical figure Saigo Takamuri.

Algren believes his green troops are not ready yet to fight but has orders to do battle by the emperor’s oily influential bureaucratic adviser Omura, who aims to modernize Japan with Western know-how and sees the obstinate samurais as unwilling to let go of their heritage as they stand in his way for progress. Algren’s fellow American mercenary, the smug Colonel Bagley, who’s his superior officer and is detested by him as not an honorable military man, sees to it that he goes into battle. In the one-sided battle in a murky forest, Algren’s side gets brutally wiped out except for him. He is captured but kept alive because he fights so gallantly he impresses the samurai leader. He’s brought back as a prisoner to the samurai remote hillside village and nursed back to health by Katsumoto’s sister, Taka (Koyuji), whose husband he killed in battle. During his year of captivity he wholeheartedly embraces the samurai lifestyle, impressed with their warrior skills, ethics, discipline and even spirituality. In time Algren falls in love with the lovely Taka, bonds with the samurais, converses freely with the English speaking noble savage warlord Katsumoto, and begins to excel in their style of fighting. Katsumato gets his full love, as each warrior respects the other’s traditions and doesn’t question what brought them together.

I found it hard to take Cruise and his funky courageous act seriously without laughing at how ridiculous it all was, where he has to do kendo and outdo even the stoic samurais in bravery. His vulnerability is conveyed by his recurring nightmares of the wrong he inflicted on the Indians. Also, in a few painstaking scenes he gets beat up but keeps coming back for more while in the learning process of picking up a new culture. I suppose that’s viewed as the one good American trait in the movie. While Cruise’s depth and sensitivity is further revealed through him periodically reading trite remarks from his diary, such as “I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed.”

The film veers from boring character interactions to lively action scenes, as Zwick does his part to find a way to end all this nonsense with some fullness as his hero revels in relating the savage Indians he fought to his new friends the noble samurais.