Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise, superbly confident and enthusiastic) was a decorated Civil War hero, but has fallen into an alcoholic stupor after witnessing Native American atrocities during the conflict. Propositioned by a Japanese industrialist to travel to Japan and train their troops in the latest in combat tactics, Algren takes the job to escape his demons. Upon arrival, he learns that the enemy is a small band of samurai (led by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe), who are using their traditional ways to protect the Emperor. During their initial skirmish between the samurai and the contemporary troops, Algren is captured and taken to live with his new enemies. Over time and experimentation, Algren learns to respect the ways of the samurai, and he fights for them when his former troops reassemble for one final charge.
If there’s any element viewers can rely on finding in an Edward Zwick film, it would be enthusiasm and confidence in storytelling. It has served him well in epics like “Legends of the Fall” and “Glory,” but also has torpedoed his interesting failures like “The Siege.” “The Last Samurai” falls in the middle of the Zwick scale of earnestness; it’s a scorching epic action film, but too concerned with appearances to truly hit its target.
The opening of the film sets the tone appropriately, setting up a story that deals directly with the principles of honor and the obsolescence of the samurai. The tale does bear a striking resemblance to Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” with the idea of a Caucasian assimilating himself heroically in a foreign world. The climactic battle scene also recalls “Braveheart” in all those uncomfortable, litigious ways that dampens the impact of what is being screened. Screenwriter John Logan isn’t ashamed to crib from these two earlier films repeatedly, but what is more troubling is his restraint in screenwriting and Zwick’s instincts toward melodrama.
“The Last Samurai” is a constipated experience; a film sliced in half in ambition and direction, and never quite coming together like it has the potential to do. Zwick keeps the tone in time with the samurai way: no emotion and no reacting. But he can’t hold back in piling on the thick sentimentality and a feeble romantic subplot between Algren and a samurai widow. This doesn’t do much for any type of honestly emotional catharsis that “Samurai” might want to provide, with Zwick keeping the crucial potency of the story hidden behind poised actors with the wind to their backs, and speeches that bring the characters to the crippling verge of tears. The film is respectful to the samurai culture and the code of honor they live by, but nothing is deeply felt about the way of life outside of an idyllic peaceful village and the occasional politically charged moment. The restraint contradicts the melodrama, and the pair does not make for good company.
Not failing the film are the production values, which are out of this world. Cinematographer John Toll (“Legends of the Fall”) skillfully sells New Zealand landscapes as Japan, and production designer Lilly Kilvert (“Heartbreakers”) creates a lush world for Algren’s adventures, drinking in a rich representation of traditional Japanese culture and history. The Japanese supporting cast is also first rate, backing Cruise’s expected complete commitment to the tale with authority and passionate performances – especially Ken Watanabe, whose blazing brand of internal leadership matches Cruise note for note.
I also enjoyed the certain asides in the story that brought excitement and invention to the film, most notably, a battle between the samurai and a group of invading ninjas. Besides a smalltime fanboy delight in the sequence (ninjas!), it is one of the rare moments in the film that isn’t uncomfortably derivative or bathed in a self-important glow. Zwick lets the film roll off (albeit in a uncharacteristic blizzard of edits) in an exceptional sequence of pure bloodshed and samurai action that provides more insight about the characters than any held gaze or speech.
All the parts that make up a great epic are on display in “The Last Samurai,” including the obscenely, needlessly long running time (a slow 150 minutes). But it just doesn’t mix together acceptably, leaving all the combat, romance, enthusiasm, and history one long, faintly uninspiring experience.Rating: C