Superficiality and conventionality are the words of the day in Edward Zwick's period epic, The Last Samurai
. Words like "honor", "tradition", and "destiny" are spoken in reverent tones, but the film fails to delve into the concepts behind them; archetypal characters rise and fall in elegantly composed frames, but they fail to convince on a human level; and the beautiful production design fails to inspire anything more than distant admiration. The Last Samurai
, despite a fascinating setting and a few rousing sequences, is a failure.
The premise, while somewhat familiar to fans of the epic, is promising. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a former army captain, is haunted by memories of a Native Indian massacre his superior officer ordered. Tormented and addicted to spirits, he accepts an over-seas contract: to supervise the training of a modern Army unit in Japan, which in turn would be used to crush the renegade Katsumoto, a samurai dedicated to the bushido or the traditional code of the Japanese warrior. Of course, things do not proceed according to plan. Algren is captured by Katsumoto and, for a few months, held prisoner in the latter's home village. There, a transformation occurs: Algren comes to admire his captor, and to see the personal, serene bushido code as more honorable than ways of modern combat. He thus falls in league with Katsumoto, leading to several confrontations (literal and metaphorical) between tradition and modernity.
As one can plainly see, this plot line is ripe for plucking. Indeed, concepts such as the traditional versus the modern, the customs and rites of a foreign feudal culture, and the contrasts between eastern and western worlds offer several potentially fascinating avenues of thought – if only the film would accept to walk them. Indeed, The Last Samurai
's disappointingly superficial script skirts around these issues, and others, without addressing them in any meaningful way. For example, the audience is told, directly and dramatically, that the bushido code is superior, and more honorable, than modern combat, but it is not told why.
The characters, unfortunately, are also treated in a similar manner. They are the conventional characters of an epic, broadly drawn and unoriginal: Algren is the noble but tormented protagonist; Katsumoto the flawlessly honorable warrior who fights for his country; Taka, Katsumoto's sister and Algren's love interest, is the honorable woman torn between grief and love; and Colonel Bagley, the superior officer responsible for Algren's nightmares (who also journeyed to Japan), is the formulaic, one-dimensional antagonist. Of course, one can seldom expect in an epic the character complexity of a chamber piece, but in most successful films of the genre, the archetypes still retain a humanity that makes them approachable emotionally. That is not the case here, and while most of the fault can be laid on the screenplay, in some instances, the acting also is partly to blame.
In the lead role, Tom Cruise is sub-par. He's usually quite capable as an actor when paired with a visionary director (Stanley Kubrick, P.T. Anderson, Oliver Stone), but without such a guiding force, he seldom delivers as well. His performance is simply too epic, too overdrawn. His every move is grandiose and momentous, and his expression is always a concentrated glower, as if Algren is continuously daunted by the importance of the events occurring around him. The other actors fare better, but are still limited by their characters' lack of depth. Ken Watanabe gives the best performance as Katsumoto and he mostly manages to give his character a measure of humanity. In more supporting roles, Koyuki and Timothy Spall do acceptable jobs bringing Taka and Simon Graham (a key friend of Algren's) to life. Finally, as Colonel Beagley, Tony Goldwyn is suitably vile, but fails to make much of an impression.
Had the film been restricted to the elements outlined above, it would have been a significant failure. Thankfully, however, it does present certain elements that raise its overall value – more specifically, the cinematography and score, and some of the action sequences are quite rousing.
John Toll, the veteran cinematographer responsible for such visual successes as "The Thin Red Line" and "Legends of the Fall", shoots The Last Samurai
with an expert eye. His compositions are a textbook example of how to shoot an epic – they are elegant without unnecessary flamboyance, they capture both the intimacy of the characters and the scope of the environment, and they remain clear and coherent during the action sequences. Furthermore, his color palette and lighting schemes, earthen in tone, are refreshingly serene.
The film also marks a welcome return to epics for acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer ("Gladiator", "The Thin Red Line"). His score is muscular and varied, encompassing both western and eastern elements, and complements each scene perfectly; in particular, a Japanese war drum cue heightens a ninja ambush action sequence wonderfully, and a powerful orchestral crescendo sets the mood and provides a perfect aural backdrop for the climactic action scene.
Finally, the action sequences are one aspect that doesn't dissapoint -- they are realistic, kinetic, and elegant. A few stand out in particular, such as the aformentioned ninja fight, in which a group of black-clothed warriors ambush Katsumoto's village and engage in fierce door-to-door fighting, and the final battle scene, in which the forces of tradition -Katsumoto's samurais- meet the forces of modernity -the Western-trained division- on a battlefield, with spectacular and awe-inspiring results.
The truth is, however, that while some elements of The Last Samurai
may entertain and impress, the ones that matter the most (the script, the acting, the direction) do not. And this flawed base, when all is taken into account, undermines the rest of the film, making it into a sometimes enthralling, sometimes impressive failure.