Soldier Of Formula

Tom Cruise battles his demons and a cliched, empty-headed plot in the rank 'Last Samurai.'

December 05, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Last Samurai is both insane and not insane enough.

In this glossy period piece, Tom Cruise plays an American Army officer who picks a lunatic way to assuage his guilt over the atrocities of the Indian Wars. He joins the ranks of a master warrior (Ken Watanabe) who leads a samurai revolt against his own emperor's army and the forces of modernism in 1876 Japan.

The moviemakers treat the moral equivalence of Indians and samurai as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Apart from using time-honored weapons like bows and arrows against technologically advanced armies, what do Indian tribes have in common with this remnant of medieval Japan? After all, the samurai were feudal enforcers, despite the glories of their code.

Akira Kurosawa revolutionized samurai movies with The Seven Samurai when he created unemployed samurai who served peasants, and he continued his revolution with the comic Yojimbo and Sanjuro when he zeroed in on a grungy freelance swordsman who worked for food and money.

In The Last Samurai, the samurai are simply lethal angels spouting bushido, or "the way of the warrior." And the script is Bushido Made Simple, summarized ruthlessly as the dual search for perfection and Zen-like freedom from the conscious mind - illustrated in picture-book views of the samurais' rural compounds as well as battle scenes in which they mow down hapless hundreds of the emperor's foot soldiers, who have the bad aim and high vulnerability of Native Americans in traditional cowboy-and-Indian movies.

Forget the creaking setup that depicts Cruise as an alcoholic spokesman for the Winchester firearms company. A hated old Army comrade (Tony Goldwyn) and a cold-blooded Japanese industrialist (Masato Harada) enlist him to train the emperor's army in Western weaponry. Even with this opening shambles, the movie might have turned into a crazy classic if the director and co-writer, Ed Zwick (Glory), recognized and then embraced the madness of his premise - and played with it, and turned it inside out.

Whether in The Wild Bunch or The Wizard of Oz, movie art often lies at the point where fierce conviction and instinct, applied to the implausible, create revelation and excitement. But Zwick, a sensible-souled filmmaker with gaudy romantic aspirations, never grounds Cruise's self-hate in anything more than a hazy flashback. Wouldn't the slaughter at Gettysburg have traumatized him as much as the Indian Wars? Zwick doesn't touch on that irony, because he knows he can get away with pandering to contemporary notions of white Western guilt for destroying other races and subcultures.

The characterizations are hopelessly perfunctory: Timothy Spall (All or Nothing) is frequently great, but no sooner does he show up as an interpreter than you peg him as a character of convenience, functioning either as a foil to the hero or a vehicle for narration.

As Cruise and his oh-so-colorful drillmaster (Billy Connolly) train the emperor's legions and then, under orders, lead them prematurely into battle, an audience knows it's in for two hours and 24 minutes of a Western morality play in Eastern clothing.

Industrialist Harada has influenced the emperor to bring his country into the l9th century with brutal disregard for traditional rites, values and customs. When Watanabe captures Cruise after massacring the emperor's green recruits, the audience, if not the hero, knows he's doing the American a favor, rescuing him from corruption and dissolution. What surprise can a filmmaker come up with when viewers are so far ahead of him?

As Cruise recuperates in Watanabe's son's mountain village, Watanabe's sister cares for him. She, of course, is the widow of the last man Cruise killed in battle. So we're treated to even more of the usual getting-to-know-you comedy-drama, including increasingly ardent glances exchanged between the Westerner and the lovely widow.

As Watanabe and company initiate Cruise into Japanese discipline and swordsmanship, we simply wait for the moment when he and Watanabe will be fighting side by side. Some of the intermediate battles have enough slash-and-burn to engage the eye, if not the mind or emotions. Cinematographer John Toll makes the play of clouds and sunlight as dynamic as the glint of swords.

The climactic massing of the forces, though, makes you long for a spark of anarchistic inspiration. As the samurais' bows and arrows and spears turn the emperor's soldiers into pincushions, the only feeling the scene is meant to evoke is awe for the traditional warriors' prowess. When mere soldiers cry, it's not for their colleagues - it's for the samurai. The nutty, masochistic high-mindedness might be funny if it weren't so square, and so woefully inappropriate to the carnage.

In The Last Samurai, the body count is almost as high as the dead-brain-cell count.

The Last Samurai

Starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe

Directed by Ed Zwick

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R

Time 144 minutes


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