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The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise: Acting Machine
Quasi Epic Bows Before Its Star
By Cole Smithey

After his last film, Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report," Tom Cruise spent a year preparing for his most physically challenging role yet, that of American Civil War Officer Captain Nathan Algren for Ed Zwick's "The Last Samurai." After being hired to train a regiment of Japanese Army for the Emperor of Japan, Algren is captured by Samurai and tutored to live as they do. Algren eventually learns to value "life in every breath" and finds that his inner nature is more in harmony with the Samurai than his previous path as a mercenary. Part fantasy and part historical touchstone, "The Last Samurai" is an impressive romanticized journey through the ideological struggles of 1877 Japan that benefits from Tom Cruise's flawless leadership as a white man who adopts the Samurai code of honor Bushido.

But however committed its actors and lush the photography "The Last Samurai" suffers as a fantastical and presentational depiction of a critical moment in Japan's history as glamorized by the moral and physical virtuosity of a self destructive white man.

Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" (1954) is the film credited with bringing the Samurai to the west, and any five minutes of that cinematic masterpiece puts the whole of "The Last Samurai" to compunction. That Kurosawa's film was a Japanese interpretation of the Western genre which echoed back to spawn John Sturges's "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) is evidence of Kurosawa's deep assimilation of an American genre to a seemingly esoteric Japanese subject matter.

Where Kurosawa paid tribute to an American genre via deep-seated realities of Japan's 16th century cultural eruption, Hollywood has taken a Disneyfied screenplay by John Logan ("Gladiator," "Any Given Sunday") and produced a sanitized vision of American imperialism parading as individual strength. There isn't a human being on the planet who needs to see another American character saunter into a foreign culture he knows nothing about and come out kicking ass as if he taught the natives their own traditions because he's mastered them so well. To even pretend that this could occur is an open handed insult regardless of any amount of feigned or real reverence to the precepts of a culture because it carries a harsh tone of patronizing supremacy.

The hardest thing to swallow about "The Last Samurai" is the dichotomy between the high level of integrity in the efforts of its cast, crew and director, and the faux "epic" script that effectively takes a piss at the very culture it pretends to elevate. Ironically, it's the credible work of the film's ensemble that exposes the shallow efforts of John Logan's script to impose a fictionalized character in a historical milieu that he, the writer, is unequipped to apprehend. What an embarrassment it is to infer that the last living Samurai was, or could be, a foreigner in love with battle.

"The Last Samurai" is a lush and entertaining Hollywood movie with a typically obtrusive musical score that makes you want to cry for mercy when the orchestra booms through the speakers during the battle scenes. The Tom Cruise acting machine is a mesmerizing entity to observe, and the surprises that Cruise delivers in lingering moments of surreal clarity sparkle with a weightless magic that hovers over the merely passable script.

More than anything else, "The Last Samurai" is the current Tom Cruise vehicle, and the actor's capacity to wrestle the story to his own demands is an impressive testament to his multifaceted perfectionist skills. A common public tendency seems to want to diminish Tom Cruise for his outspoken belief system and personal crusades. He's an impossibly handsome natural born movie superstar with an arsenal of technique and pitch perfect instincts who stands up well against every other American movie star that has come before him. He knows his limits and insists on pushing them within very specific constraints. It's the same logic that makes actors like Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Al Pacino, Johnny Depp and Sean Penn fascinating on that lofty level that we recognize as weighty, focused and reliable. For Tom Cruise, the future is bright.

Rated R, 154 mins. (C+) (Three Stars)

June 8, 2005 in Action/Adventure, Drama | Permalink