Wednesday, December 10, 2003

REVIEW: The Last Samurai

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2003 at Loews Harvard Square (first-run)

In a just world, this would be Ken Watanabe's movie. It would focus on the final, doomed resistance of the samurai against the westernization of Japan, and what this process meant for the Japanese, whether they be samurai, emperor, or peasant.

That sort of movie has probably been made several times in Japan. The Last Samurai, however, is an American movie being made by Americans for an American audience. So enter Tom Cruise as an ex-Army captain haunted by his service in the Civil and Indian Wars, on a self-destructive path but admittedly not good for much other than soldiering. Hired to train Japanese soldiers in the methods of Western warfare, it is through his eyes that we see this battle.

And that's not entirely a bad thing. The connection in his eyes between American Indians and the people of rural Japan is an interesting one, and the chance to atone for his sins toward the former with the latter gives the movie a nice dramatic arc. The downside is that any active role assigned to Capt. Algren, as there must be for the story to be satisfying, must diminish (if only slightly) the role of the Japanese in determining their fate.

But that's history; putting it aside, how is the movie as entertainment? Pretty good. Cruise doesn't submerge himself into his role quite so well here as he did in, say, Minority Report or Magnolia - he's a bit further to one end of the Movie Star/Actor spectrum - but he's chosen a good Tom Cruise role. He's supported ably by both the English- and Japanese-speaking actors, and develops a camaraderie and respect with Watanabe that is very pleasant to watch.

And the movie looks great; only very rarely does anything seem fake, and the battle scenes are well-staged. And unlike, say, Dances With Wolves (a film I've seen The Last Samurai compared to), it doesn't draw itself out by continuing on past three-plus logical ending points (one at most).

If you can get past a defining event in Japanese history being told from the perspective of a fictional(?) white guy, there's quite a bit to enjoy about this movie. If you can't, though, you might be well-advised to stay away.

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