One of the reasons I enjoy going to the movies is to have new worlds opened up to me. I like my imagination to be stirred, and nothing can do that as quickly and deeply as a movie. Sure, I can read a book about the last of Japan’s magnificent samurai warriors struggling to uphold their traditional values in a rapidly modernizing world. It would also probably contain hundreds more interesting details that one could never fit into a two-hour movie.
But the one thing books can never do is SHOW you that story. The costumes, the landscapes, the architecture, the people! And books don’t have Tom Cruise either. “The Last Samurai,” director Edward Zwick’s new war epic starring Cruise as an embittered U.S. Civil War veteran commissioned to help modernize Japan’s army, shows all these things in great detail. It also wraps us up in a surprisingly thoughtful story about tradition and honor. This is a good movie.
Sadly, it could have easily been a great one.
The first hurdle I had to get over was what I like to call “Dances With Wolves” syndrome. Apparently, it takes a beautiful white man to come in and understand the ways of said ancient culture and make the audience sympathize.
I realize that this is a requirement going in. I mean, even if “The Last Samurai” was a badass movie and got all this great press, would enough people go see it if it didn’t star Cruise to justify the huge budget for costumes and design? No. But with Tom Cruise in it, you’ve got yourself an audience, and a sturdy actor who can carry the film.
Secondly, “The Last Samurai” contains many familiar trappings of a “big picture.” Billy Connolly is the annoying and totally out-of-place sidekick who is only present for comic relief. His is the clichéd character that we are supposed to identify with immediately because he cracks wise all the time. I’m willing to bet that “shove it up your ass” was NOT a popular expression in the late 1800s. I’m just glad he’s not in the picture very much.
The required love story sub-plot is also here. It didn’t kill me because, until the end, it was subtle and understated, but it didn’t really need to be there. The bad guys are typical bad guys, but once again, at the end, they reveal themselves even more to be the shallow plot devices that they really are.
But there is plenty good about “The Last Samurai.” The scenery is gorgeous, and the film completely immerses you in the time period with stunning detail. Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe are very good. Cruise handles the regret and pain inherent in his character nobly, and Watanabe is very powerful as the leader of the samurai, a group whose storied tradition is being cruelly snuffed out.
Zwick pulls the heartstrings well, and one climactic scene in particular summed up the main theme of the movie perfectly towards the end. In fact, it was such a moving scene, it should have ended the movie. Instead, “The Last Samurai” rambles on way too long, including needless wrap-ups and going way further than needed to seem more uplifting. Zwick should have more faith in his audience.
“The Last Samurai” is a beautifully well-made film, and it didn’t need to pander so much in conclusion.