A review of “The Last Samurai” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: **

Rating: R for violence and intense battle sequences

Run Time: 2 hours, 28 minutes

 

 

Oh vanity project be thy name.  Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise portraying a dejected war hero in this magnum opus of egocentric proportion.

San Francisco, 1876.  Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a washed-up, embittered soldier, saddled with the memories of an unforgiving Civil War skirmish gone violently awry.  He makes ends meet by pitching newfangled Winchester firearms at local carnivals. 

Drunken and disillusioned, Algren isn’t prepared for what’s around the bend: an offer from the Japanese government to train its men for war.  Japan is a small country yearning to become a civilized nation, a feat they believe can be achieved on the battlefield.

The money is right and Algren takes up the fight, but one of his unprepared charges’ early efforts sees the Japanese fall in dramatic fashion to the mighty and near-extinct Samurai.  Algren, along with his unhealthy death-wish, is captured by the powerful Samurai warriors who identify with his spirit and are reluctant to behead him.

The hunky and tortured Algren takes to the ways of the Samurai and bonds with their leader, the powerfully zen Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Algren and Katsumoto are both students of war; their union a perfect product of fate. Algren loses himself in the bottle to still his demons but endures the torturous Samurai training camp with gusto and fierce determination.

Old School clashes with new as Algren masters the sword and falls for Katsumoto’s sister Taka (Koyuki). Samurai means to serve, thus Algren devotes himself to the legend of the Samurai with every fiber of his epic being.

Ultimately, a nation of laws does battle with a nation of swords, and Algren is at the ready, warrior spirit intact and his finely-tuned sense of honor to guide him.

Kurosawa is rolling in his grave. Producer Cruise clearly sees Samurai as an homage; albeit one that flows with clichéd sap and treats its Japanese history with an impertinent surface slick. The ostensible deep reservoir of feeling beneath the Asian smiles and bows is less about emotion and more about image, the gang losing cinematic face all over the place.

Samurai is big in scope and awash in theatrics.  Sweeping music, winsome glances, and the code of warriors serve to heighten the melodrama with a capital M. The script is an appalling effort at historical authenticity, skirting reality and honing in on box-office punch. 

Cruise is, as always, a pro – wielding a mean sword with what clearly took months of practice.  His too-quick grasp of the Japanese language and his speedy ability to stand sentry with the Samurai, however, is the stuff of Hollywood legend and serves to cheapen the proceedings.

Watanabe is pretty as a picture, a nice counterpoint to Cruise’s rugged good-looks.  Japan’s turn of the century look seems straight off an LA sound stage. Samurai is mildly satisfying entertainment but many moons shy of potential greatness.