Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Last Samurai Movie Review

This review was first written and published in December 2003 on a website that no longer exists. The unusual structure is a remnant of that site's requirements.

Synopsis: Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a war hero who served under General Custer. He is offered the opportunity to travel to Japan to train the Imperial Army so they may successfully put down a rebellion of samurai warriors. The US Government stands to get a lucrative weapons contract out of the deal. When the ill-prepared Japanese soldiers are hastily sent into battle, the samurai handily defeat them, taking Algren as their prisoner after demonstrating his fearsome fighting capabilities while fending off five or six samurai. He spends the winter months in a small village in the mountains learning the ways of Japanese culture and training as a samurai. In the spring he returns to Tokyo and his own commanding officer to find that his loyalties lie with the villagers with whom he has developed a strong bond. Algren chooses to side with his principles and to fight with the samurai against the invasion of the US-backed Japanese military.

Scoop: A film like The Last Samurai risks criticism for making a white man the emotional center of a story about Japanese warriors. If this were a story about a white man who leads the helpless samurai, through the use of his Western knowledge, to a tremendous victory against the invaders, then such criticism might be valid. But director Edward Zwick and screenwriter John Logan have made a film about an American soldier who has lost himself at home and is saved by a culture he finds to be right, pure and honorable.

At the opening of the film, Algren is something of a legend, his celebrity being utilized by the Winchester Company to help sell rifles. He is a hard drinker and a cynical observer, still mired down by remembrances of his past which includes being ordered by his superior, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), to storm through an American Indian settlement, slaughtering women and children. Then he is offered a large salary to travel to Japan (where he will again be taking his orders from Bagley) to train a regiment of unskilled soldiers. Because Algren has nothing to live for at home, he has little reason to reject the offer.

Arriving in Japan, Algren and Bagley become engaged in a hasty, slipshod method of training peasant farmers as skilled soldiers. The regiment is sent into battle far too soon in Algren’s opinion. Bagley and the Japanese officers operate under the impression that superior numbers and weaponry are enough to win the battle, failing to take into account the tenacity of the samurai. We know what the outcome will be before the battle even begins. If the samurai were to be defeated there would be no movie. By the end of the battle, Algren has been taken captive, his life spared by Hatsumoto (Ken Watanabe) after witnessing the same ferocious tenacity of a samurai. In the process, Algren kills one of the most formidable warriors.

During his time in the mountain village, Algren resides in the home of the warrior he killed, being fed and cared for by Taka the widow, and her two young sons. A lesser film would showcase a burgeoning romance between Taka and Algren. Then we would be left with yet another in a series of stories with a romance between a submissive Asian woman and a strong, white man. The playwright David Henry Hwang covered that ground fifteen years ago with “M. Butterfly.”  Zwick and Logan know how to handle this material with a skill rarely seen in big studio films. There is an element of romance between Taka and Algren, but it is never the focus of the story. We see it only in glances that they give each other and through the brief conversations they have late in the film. It is a mark of the skills of both Cruise and the actress Koyuki as performers that they are able to convey how their characters need one another without resorting to romantic gestures. Take, for instance, a scene late in the film when Algren enters the house and sees Taka in her bedroom. They share a look, after which Taka stoically slides her door shut. It is a simple, graceful movement that suggests there can be nothing between them.

We know from Zwick’s earlier work (Glory and The Siege) that he is a director capable of balancing the line between racial groups. In fact, Cruise’s voiceover narration takes on a tone strikingly similar to that given by Matthew Broderick in Glory, in terms of the character’s observations regarding a culture completely alien to him. The film’s subject matter is not without fault, however. There is something borderline sinister about having the Japanese government so quick to invite Western power and domination in order to put down a small rebellion. The power struggle is ancient vs. modern; samurai vs. military strength; and in some respect, East vs. West. We have to wonder what Edward Said would have to say about the representation of Eastern culture here.

The Last Samurai is a piece of skilled epic filmmaking, although not without its faults. Hans Zimmer, who is no stranger to composing excellent epic film scores (The Thin Red Line and Gladiator), never lets us forget we are watching an epic. Somehow he misses the mark here. He seems to forget that film is primarily a visual medium and that the images should speak loudest. Screenwriter Logan is far too aware of the traditional 3-Act structure of screenwriting. One can almost see the breaks on the page. Algren spends months learning to fight like a samurai – the training process culminating in a demonstration of his superior skill followed by a test of that skill in a real battle scenario. This brings us to…wait for it…ACT 3, in which Algren returns to Tokyo and ultimately sides with his new comrades.

The film is notable for its ability to maintain a tight focus, never losing control of itself, as is often the case with overblown Hollywood budgets. There are several moments where one can sense the possibility that the filmmakers will take a wrong turn, but they do right by the audience. It could have been preachy, as when Algren returns from months in the mountains and comments to Bagley that he needs a bath. Bagley responds, “After living with those savages, I can only imagine.”  The look on Cruise’s face conveys everything necessary, without launching into a diatribe about cultural sensitivity. It’s not a great film, but it refuses to pander and insult, and that makes it exceptional.

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