Dir: Edward Zwick. US. 2003. 154mins
Tom Cruise rides into the East in Warner Bros' stirring, beautifully mounted dramatic release, directed by Ed Zwick (Glory, Legends Of The Fall), refreshingly set in 1870s Japan. Though its plot and structure, as well as it characters, sometimes perilously skirt cliche, the end result is a moving, gorgeously photographed opus with more than a little political and philosophical bite to it. The epic battle scenes are brilliantly staged and edited, yet the filmmakers have understood that such cinematic fireworks function best in the service of a strong narrative and convincing characters, which are here in spades. The historical understanding of Meiji-era Japan is impeccable, as is the visual re-creation of this intensely conflicted period (so much so that, given Cruise's popularity there, the film should do as well in Japan as in the US). Unlike Master And Commander, another recent story of war and manly men, The Last Samurai features a satisfying love story, which should ensure it the widest possible audience.
Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a grizzled veteran of the American Civil War and the unrelenting massacre visited upon the hapless Native Americans that followed. Now a drunken side-show performer, he accepts with alacrity an offer to train the Japanese emperor's new army. As we learn in flashbacks, the massacres he's been forced to participate in have wreaked no small psychological havoc. When he falls into the hands of the enemy samurai leader, Katsumoto (Watanabe), he comes to appreciate their strange culture and martial values and redeems himself by throwing his lot in with theirs, however hopelessly romantic a gesture it may prove to be in an avidly modernising Japan.
Though his movie-star persona threatens as always to intrude, Cruise is thoroughly believable as the warrior who finds salvation among the doomed Samurai. The supporting cast is uniformly superb, especially Watanabe, and Koyuki, who plays Cruise's love interest. Timothy Spall is as good as ever, this time as a photographer-cum-translator who accompanies Algren on his journeys.
Traditional Japanese culture is treated respectfully, even worshipfully, and the filmmakers, obviously influenced by Kurosawa's masterpiece, The Seven Samurai, brilliantly succeed in placing the story in its complex historical context.
Algren's voiceover, taken from his journal, adds a poetic, spiritual element and helps Western viewers understand the Samurai ways that he encounters. Humour is sparse, but carefully and effectively placed, mostly through the invigorating addition of some adorable children. A surprising amount of the dialogue, for a studio film, is in subtitled Japanese, presumably a post-Crouching Tiger phenomenon. In addition to some resonant cross-cultural philosophising, a fascinating, well-developed theme links the samurais' lost cause with that of the Native American. And while all the talk of honour and the warrior spirit will alienate pacifists, nevertheless astute observers will detect a subtle questioning of blind patriotism and America-firstism throughout.
Though many of the situations and characters tend toward familiar stereotypes found in nearly every Western ever made, the film's superb execution and undoubted power, on so many levels, will keep this safely concealed from most audiences.
Prod cos: Radar Pictures, Bedford Falls Company, Cruise-Wagner
US dist: Warner Brothers
Int'l dist: Warner
Producers: Ed Zwick, Tom Cruise, Marshall Herskovitz, Paula Wagner, Scott Kroopf, Tom Engleman
Executive producers: Ted Field, Rick Solomon, Vincent Ward, Charles Mulvehill
Screenplay: Ed Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, John Logan
Cinematographer: John Toll
Production designer: Lilly Kilvert
Editor: Steven Rosenblum, Victor DuBois
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Ngila Dickson
Main cast: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Koyuki