With this Tom Cruise film writer-director Edward Zwick returns to the themes of honor and integrity in conflict that he previously addressed in “Glory” and “Courage Under Fire.” But this time around he does so in a quasi-epic that resembles his own previous films less than it does “Dances With Wolves.” Indeed, but for its obvious change of locale “The Last Samurai” uses that Kevin Costner Oscar winner as a virtual template. A Union officer, disillusioned after his experiences in the Civil War, finds his spirit restored by being immersed in a supposedly “primitive” culture. In the earlier film, of course, it was that of the American Indians. Here the culture is that of the traditional Japanese samurai warriors, whose sense of discipline and principle he comes not only to admire but to emulate; to use the old British phrase, he definitely “goes native.” Of course, the old ways and the values they represent are doomed; but in struggling to preserve them against hopeless odds, their adherents show their natural dignity and the reverence they deserve.
The narrative, contrived by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick from a scenario by Logan (one of the scripters of “Gladiator”), is set against the backdrop of the Meiji restoration in the 1870s, when Mutsuhito, the young, recently-reinstated emperor, undertook a policy of speedy modernization to meet the threat posed by the western powers, which had recently broken through the realm’s cherished isolation. As part of the program, the government decided to abolish the class of samurai warriors, some of whose most notable leaders had supported the imperial restoration. In response, one of them, Saigo Takamori (who had actually helped to form the new regime and create the new army before resigning), led the so-called Satsuma Rebellion, which the westernized forces crushed in 1877. But the screenplay doesn’t dramatize the fascinating historical record; instead it confects a fictionalized story that uses something vaguely resembling it as the basis for a “Dances With Samurai” sort of narrative. Here the imperial government, in the person of the powerful Omura (Masato Harada)–hires Nathan Algren (Cruise), a wartime captain now sunk into alcoholism and self-hatred as the result of his experiences with Custer at the Washita and doing humiliating public appearances on behalf of Winchester rifles, to help train the newly-established imperial army in the use of western tactics and firearms. Algren is persuaded by the salary, even though it will mean working again with Colonel Begley (Tony Goldwyn), a hard-fisted officer he has come to despise. But shortly after his arrival, he’s ordered to take his decidedly unprepared forces into the field against an army of rebellious samurai led by one Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a charismatic figure (and former imperial advisor) who represents all that is noble in the old ways. Algren’s army is routed, and the captain is himself wounded and captured by Katsumoto, who takes the American back to his rural encampment, placing him in the care of his sister Taka (Koyuki), whose husband Algren had killed in battle. It isn’t long before Nathan is discussing philosophies of life with Katsumoto, becoming enamored of the samurai mentality and lifestyle (which he begins haltingly to learn), and growing fond of Taka and her young sons. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to foresee that Algren will become a partisan of the rebels and, in the inevitable confrontation with the revived imperial army, accompany Katsumoto in a final desperate–and doomed–stand against Begley and his master Omura. Nor does it take any special psychic power to predict that though Katsumoto may fall, his spirit will nonetheless triumph.
This scenario is mounted in typically beautiful fashion by Zwick and his crew. John Toll’s cinematography is ravishing, and the production design (Lilly Kilvert) and art direction (Chris Burian-Mohr, Jess Gonchor and Kim Sinclair) are exquisite. The director complements the visual opulence by staging everything in a solemn, serious style that proclaims this is a prestige product, the very embodiment of good taste. It all looks great. Ultimately, however, the hackneyed story arc makes “The Last Samurai” seem rather stale. Putting the dramatic emphasis on an conflicted American once more cheapens the foreign culture the picture’s supposed to be recognizing. It’s even unclear whom the title is supposed to refer to. By rights it should be Katsumoto, of course; but Algren survives him, and in the end he’s assumed the master’s teachings (ands learned to do battle in samurai style) so completely that he represents a virtual continuation of the tradition. (It’s hardly an accident that by the close he’s assumed the place of the samurai he’d killed, donning the dead man’s armor and even taking on his familial responsibilities.) On the other hand, Katsumoto has, to a certain extent at least, been corrupted by Algren’s influence. He elects to break confinement, choosing rebellion over a traditionally honorable death, at the American’s urging; and in the final battle, he adopts Algren’s tactical suggestions, though–as it turns out–they merely postpone the inevitable. Presumably these plot twists were designed to argue that Algren makes some positive contribution to Katsumoto’s quest in return for all he receives from the samurai. But if so, the message is muddled.
The acting, moreover, has its own problems. Watanabe makes a strong impression, although his accent occasionally makes his lines difficult to understand. Shin Koyamada is also notable as Katsumoto’s son, an expert archer who’s the first to take a real liking to Algren. The rest of the Japanese cast is also excellent, and Timothy Spall is fine as a British journalist-interpreter who serves as a voice of jaded reason and occasional comic foil. But Goldwyn is boringly one-dimensional, and Billy Connolly is a caricature as Algren’s crusty sergeant–a Scottish version of the gruff taskmaster that Ward Bond regularly essayed in innumerable John Ford films. As for Cruise, it has to be said that he handles his role’s physical demands well, and that he tries very hard to meet its dramatic ones too. Unfortunately, he disappears into his part no better than John Wayne did when he played American diplomat Townsend Harris in John Huston’s 1958 misfire “The Barbarian and the Geisha.” Simply put, for all his effort Cruise never transcends his superstar persona, nor does the film ever seem more than a vehicle for him.
Ultimately while one can admire the seriousness of purpose and technical expertise that’s gone into “The Last Samurai,” the final product is too reminiscent of earlier pictures, and, despite its exotic setting, too provincially-minded, to survive real scrutiny. Perhaps the day will come when, at long last, a movie like this can be made in which the eastern figure will take his deserved place center-stage, and the audience’s American surrogate can be put where he belongs–off to the side.