The Last Samurai
Tom Cruise started his career as the cutest guy around ("Risky Business"), graduated to greatest sex symbol of the decade ("Top Gun"), became an actor ("Rain Man," "Born on the Fourth of July"), and more recently settled into a comfortable groove ("Mission: Impossible I and II"). That's an oversimplification; he did fine work in "Jerry Maguire" and "Minority Report." But his newest film, "The Last Samurai," brings together every single bad habit he's picked up in a twenty-year career and puts them all on the screen for us to cringe at. He swallows his words, reads without emotion, stares into space before every line - there are enough pregnant pauses to deliver a dozen babies here - and is the least interesting epic hero since Victor Mature.
The year is 1876, and Indian War hero (he rode with Custer but left before the fatal encounter) Capt. Nathan Algren (Cruise) is hired by the Japanese government to help modernize their army. With his superior, Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) he begins training the men. They are to fight and defeat a group of rebels. But little does he know, as we say, that the Emperor's advisor Mr. Omura (Masato Harada) has another agenda, which is to eliminate the rebels because they are the last band of samurai who are currently upholding the honor of the country against corrupt men like Omura. In a fight between his undertrained men and the rebels Algren is injured and captured by the samurai leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) and healed by his dead brother's widow, the beautiful Taka (Koyuki). As the two men spend time together Algren comes to see the truth and signs on as a fighting companion of Katsumoto. The rest of the film is the story of their final battle against Omura and his corrupt government.
The film was directed by Edward Zwick, who obviously has seen Kurosawa's "Ran," but just as obviously has learned nothing from it. His battles are confusingly choreographed and are all too reminiscent of his civil war film "Glory." His editing is predictable; we can anticipate every twist and turn before it shows up. And Cruise is always photographed as though in a biopic about Jesus; tall, strong, thoughtful. But when he speaks, only clichés come out. The script is pedantic and obvious, on the level of an illustrated children's book. And Cruise no longer has the magnetism to hold us; the screen seems empty when he is on. But Ken Watanabe, as Katsumoto, is utterly riveting. We cannot take our eyes off him. He dominates the screen and the theatre itself. Big and bulky like Chow Yun Fat, with the same quality of repose that commands attention, even devotion, he is the only believable thing in the film. Ah, if only we could hire him to reform our own government.