THE LAST SAMURAI directed by Edward Zwick, written by Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and John Logan, produced by Zwick, Herskovitz, Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, with Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Tony Goldwyn and Masato Harada. 144 minutes. A Warner Brothers release. Opens Friday (December 5). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 96. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
To relieve the worries of every body who's seen the poster, Tom Cruise does not play the last samurai. He's more the last samurai's gaijin buddy, who decides that living in the last outposts of feudal Japanese culture is preferable to returning to the corrupt West, where he served in the Seventh Cavalry under Custer. He's still haunted by dreams of an unspecified atrocity, which the time frame would suggest was the Washita River massacre.
The Last Samurai is played by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, and the character has been renamed Katsumoto, perhaps to allow the authors some literary licence with actual historical events. With the exception of that white guy hanging around, much of the film is solidly based in historical events recounted in Mark Ravina's book of the same title, including the crushing of the samurai uprising by imperial troops working for a young emperor who was trying to drag Japan kicking and screaming into the modern world.
It's easy to dismiss this as Dances With Samurai. The parallels between Tom Cruise's Captain Nathan Algren and Kevin Costner's Lieutenant Dunbar are strikingly similar, as are the white-guy-lost-in-an-alien-culture plot and the sentimental view of a dying culture.
This film is a lot less sentimental than Dances With Wolves, though. And Ed Zwick (Glory, The Siege, Courage Under Fire - how did the creator of thirtysomething wind up making so many war movies?) is a much stronger filmmaker than Costner, who never met a self-indulgent close-up of himself that he didn't enjoy. (Not that this film doesn't have any number of handsome close-ups of producer/star Cruise.) And it's about 35 minutes shorter, a big plus.
As the film opens, Algren is detached from the army (which means he missed Custer's appointment with Crazy Horse and the Sioux Nation), drinking himself oblivious and doing promotional work for Remington rifles when he's invited to come and train the emperor of Japan's new army.
When he warns his commanders not to go after the samurai rebels because his troops aren't ready, they ignore him, and his troops prove him right. They're massacred and he's captured and taken to his village by Katsumoto, who's intrigued by the Westerner and respects his committed fighting style.
In turn, Algren finds himself attracted to this strange culture and its commitment to perfection. I guess he missed seeing any of those samurai who, by the late 19th century, were basically thugs with swords. He trains, he learns, he begins to appreciate the warrior culture even as it's falling away from the core of Japanese life. (Worth remembering while watching this film is the fact that in less than 30 years Japan would fight a full-scale modern war with Russia.)
Zwick has a real eye for this sort of film, and if no one will mistake his battle scenes for Kurosawa's, they do have clarity and sweep. Even in the most chaotic moments, he holds together his fights' spatial integrity. We usually know exactly where everyone is, and if you think that's easy, take a look at most large-scale action movies coming out of Hollywood studios these days.