Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Tuesday Review: The Last Samurai (2003)
In which our lord and savior Tom Cruise saves Japan.
Reviewing a film like The Last Samurai proves to be a tricky proposition. It is obviously a well-made film - the collaboration of several talented individuals, making a movie that works on most every level a film like this should. The writing is mostly strong, the performances are solid, and the direction brings it all together for a pretty satisfying motion picture experience. The problem is that all of this good work is in service to an idea so ridiculous and egotistical, it can’t possibly be taken seriously at face value. I mean, the poster-child for Scientology as The Last Samurai? Come on…
The Last Samurai was released at the tail end of 2003, as a part of a “movement” of large-scale battle epics that began with Braveheart and Gladiator and the like. The advances in digital effects meant that filmmakers could show armies clashing in the hundreds of thousands, which all came to a head with the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the last part of which indeed was released the same month as The Last Samurai). The spectacle of battle reached it’s apex in Return of the King - huge, massive encounters that set the bar so high they still have yet to be reached, and indeed effectively ended the trend that began with Braveheart. Into the midst of this we have The Last Samurai, a clear vanity project designed to show off the talents of its main star.
Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a veteran of the Civil and Indian wars who spends his days now drinking to escape his horrible past. The US Army comes to him with a proposition: the nation of Japan is undergoing rapid Westernization, and needs officers with experience to train its newly conscripted army against the rebellious samurai who refuse to accept change. Their first encounter goes horribly south, and Algren finds himself a captive of the rebellion leader Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe. Algren soon comes to respect his captors, and in adopting the way of the samurai, finally finds the purpose he searched so desperately for after killing Cheyenne Indians for Custer.
As the lead character, Tom Cruise is ultimately the most problematic element of the film. Long overshadowed by his public persona, it’s easy to forget that Cruise is one of the most talented performers of his generation; giving classic performances in films like Born on the Fourth of July and Magnolia and a host of others. But all of Cruise’s best roles were created around characters of extreme charisma, which Cruise has in ample supply. A character like Nathan Algren is the complete opposite - internalized, dark, depressive and haunted by his past. Cruise gives his all, but ultimately is just not convincing as the burnt-out shell of a man the role requires. He has nice moments throughout, and he hits all the right beats such a performance needs, but can’t escape the fact that he’s Tom Cruise - one look at the guy, and it’s hard to believe he’s ever seen the bottom of a bottle.
The rest of the cast is filled out with some fine Japanese talent, but it’s also here we find more problematic content. The film again takes the tired “outsider looking in” perspective of other such white man movies like Dances With Wolves and Glory (which was also helmed by this film’s director, Ed Zwick). Algren is touched by the gentle nobility he finds amongst the samurai, personified in the quiet dignity of their leader, Katsumoto. Such portrayals are definitely preferable to the Asian stereotypes found in older Western media, but no less problematic. It’s the same as the “Magical Negro” syndrome: a race historically demonized by white society being suddenly elevated to sainthood, which is not really that much better. Demonized or sanctified, it’s still a culture being ransacked and oversimplified - treated not as people, but as totemic representations. In effect, although portrayed in a positive light, they can still be essentially seen as sub-human.
All that said, the Japanese cast do an admirable job playing second fiddle to Cruise, most especially Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto. Watanabe plays the role both tenderly and with authority - the type of man who is a natural leader. His conversations with Cruise are some of the highlights of the film, and all of that comes directly from Watanabe, as the two trade their warrior philosophies. Outside of Watanabe, the other Japanese actors are limited to but cameos; the only notable one among them being Hiroyuki Sanada, but that’s largely because the actor’s general badassness outshines just about everyone else on the screen.
The script comes courtesy of John Logan (who co-writes with Zwick as well as Marshall Herskovitz), who is a good writer often constrained by the needs of Hollywood executives. Logan’s script for The Last Samurai hits all the proper beats most Hollywood movies hit: there’s the hero’s journey, the half-baked romance with the woman charged with caring for Cruise’s character, all the requisite rival to friend, friend to enemy relationships we find time and time again in these movies. The script does an admirable (if unremarkable) job of representing these timeworn traits, if you’re not already sick of them by now. The rest of the film is a marvel of craftsmanship; impeccably designed and lovingly shot by John Toll. Director Ed Zwick is a classicist, and his traditional and clear staging comes as something of a breath of fresh air in this age of shaky-cam, “Prosumer” digital cinema - ably filming the New Zealand vistas and making them look better than ever. And in a rousing score by Hans Zimmer, and the movie winds up being very easy on the senses.
But there’s still the inescapable ridiculousness of it all, which sees lilywhite Tom Cruise in full samurai regalia at its climax - the ultimate in movie star ego and pretension. Ultimately, The Last Samurai proves to be a rather enjoyable film… If you can manage to watch it with a straight face.