Main cast: Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren), Ken Watanabe (Katsumoto), Hoyuki (Taka), Shin Koyamada (Nobutada), Billy Connolly (Zebulon Gant), Tony Goldwyn (Colonel Bagley), Masato Harada (Omura), Timothy Spall (Simon Graham), and Shichinosuke Nakamura (Emperor Meiji)
Director: Edward Zwick
In a valiant effort to make people forget his PR nightmare of the Nicole Years and to reestablish himself as a serious actor, Tom Cruise charges ahead with one of the most obvious Oscar baits of the year, The Last Samurai. What he doesn’t seem to be aware of is that like the hype behind the Nicole Years as well as the ridiculous acclaim for his actually average acting skills is mostly built by an empire of industrious PR people and media. As this movie shows, Tom Cruise is the perfect man to spearhead an epic movie, if we’re talking about a hopelessly pedestrian formulaic “white man learns honor from exotic Asian men and saves these men from their ignorance” movie, that is.
Nathan Algren is a drunkard buffoon (he is tormented by the massacres of Native Americans, oh the horror) asked to teach the Japanese soldiers how to use Winchester rifles. Along the way, he is captured by the Emperor’s band of samurai bodyguards led by Katsumoto. Algren soon becomes enthralled by the peace-loving noble ways of these samurais and even finds love, chemistry-free as usual, with a widow of a samurai. Soon, of course, he will have to choose between his newfound buddies or his old American buddies when it comes to a bitter confrontation between both worlds.
The trite exotification of the samurai tradition comes thick and fast with the subtlety of a buffalo stampede. Look, ma, Japanese people quietly stir broth in a pot as Yo-yo Ma music comes on in the background – what bee-yoo-ti-fool peace-loving people! The Japanese just want to defend their homeland, you know, and they can do nothing wrong. It’s those darned foreigners’ fault. Even Nathan Algren is ashamed of them!
Like the movie Edward Zwick, until now, is best known for, Glory, The Last Samurai is a beautifully produced movie that screams “It cost zillions of dollars to make this explosion scene, wow!” while at the same time being too involved in displaying its clockwork-like motions at the expense of any heart in the movie. Characters are merely stereotypes reenacting the same old roles, right down to the required against all odds battle scene at the end. Throughout it all, my emotions are never engaged, despite Mr Cruise’s best attempt to emote. Unfortunately, Timothy Spall along with Ken Watanabe and other Japanese thespians act rings around him even if they are merely doing their same old Pat Morita repertoire that they can sleepwalk through. Come to think of it, why isn’t Pat Morita in this movie?