Directed by Edward Zwick. USA. 2003.
Let's be honest here: only the most preternaturally lachrymose amongst us were going into this movie expecting to be moved. But I would gamble that most viewers thought, at the very least, they would be entertained. Whilst on a certain level that did happen, on many others it did not - especially when the movie starts to fester away whilst you're waiting for the tram home and resentment gradually builds towards everyone involved in this collosal folly, then you wake up the next morning and think: "Right: finally I know what I must do with my life! I must make a time machine so I can retrieve the three hours I wasted watching The Last Samurai!"
Then you remember Einstein and weep softly into your pillow.
With time-travel ruled out, the only option left is to savour the inane grin gradually ebbing from Tom Cruise's face as he realises he is NEVER going to win an Oscar unless he hangs around long enough and gets a True Grit thanks-for-trying effort which is, in many ways, more humiliating than never winning one.
Some might argue it is not really the film's fault that its star carries such extra-textual baggage, and that's a fair point. If the film had a choice, it would have gone for someone as idol-worthy as Russell Crowe. Or Jude Law, so impressive in Cold Mountain. Or Tom Hanks even. But the Cruiser? I'm sorry, Tom, but I hereby abdicate you of all Hollywood-leading-man responsibilities forthwith. Run back to PT Anderson - run! Or even Tarantino - I'm sure he's got some part ready for you. Because after this, indie is the way to go.
Now I must point out that I don't usually lower myself to ad hominem rants, but the fact is that Mr. Cruise has become inescapably, indubitably, there's only one word for it... smug. He's smug. And self-consciously so. Every close up of his face, and there are a few, often accompanied by gratuitous slow-mo, reveals to the audience his innate smugness. Each frame seems to cry out: "Look: I am an actor. I am an ACTOR. Yes. And I have lots of money. But I treat all the crew with respect. And I love doing romantic things for Penelope. Please feel free to vomit."
It's difficult to trace precisely when an actor's charm is outweighed by their filmic and personal history. It's a fine line because, of course, what has become smugness used to be arrogance. Cocky, spiky arrogance that worked so well in Cocktail, Top Gun, even Born on the Fourth of July. But underneath it all, which got people on his side, was vulnerability. The vulnerability of youth, of insecurity. And that's gone now, dissipated like this film's clumsily symbolic pink blossoms, dispersed in a haze of wife-leaving, megabucks producing, self-conscious A-list status progress (not to mention Vanilla Sky. Damn, I just did).
He still retains his greatest asset though: he's still got that pinball smile.
But the problem with films such as 'The Last Samurai' are: they don't let him utilise it. They just let him engagein the Richard Gere thespian school - furrowed brow, slightly puzzled... hey presto you can act.
The coda, especially, is excruciating, when his Captain Algren appears after the final battle to give Katsumoto's sword back to the Emperor: the veins bulge, the single tear rolls, but he just looks constipated. And that's disregarding the resolute awfulness of the Emperor's speech - all the useless suffering of his beloved samurai and he resolves that... Japan shouldn't forget its "ancient history". Whoop-de-do. I'm sure that will make the whole village that was widowed and orphaned feel a lot better. But wait... they weren't all widowed and orphaned, because Tom came back! To be with the woman whose husband he killed!
This is a ridiculously patronising movie, to the Japanese, the samurai, the audience, anyone with a brain cell. Ken Watanabe tries to bring some dignity to proceedings, but can't quite manage it. Timothy Spall and Billy Connolly are on autopilot as comic relief. The cinematography is far from impresive, and the fight scenes are all edited so swiftly it is hard to get enthralled; the replayed fight scenes, where Tom attempts to 'be the blade' are simply amusing.
Basically, people, you need to consider your alternatives:
If you want an Oscar contending
epic, go see Cold Mountain, Master
& Commander or LOTR.
Obviously, cumulatively these fine efforts will take up more of your time than the three hours you would waste watching The Last Samurai, but it's worth it. I'm serious - we need to convince the world that films such as this DO NOT need to be made; they are redundant. It is the kind of film that makes you think: why? why do we bother? Why not just call a moratorium, then perpetually re-release Star Wars (that's the original version, George), It's a Wonderful Life and Singing in the Rain and be done with it?
Vote with your feet: stay
away. But if you must, must, must see an Edward Zwick directed slice of
epic grand fromage starring a gorgeous A-list star, then I offer up one
more alternative - buy Legends of the Fall. It's cheap on DVD. And
Brad Pitt? Oh. Oh. You realise why he and Mr. Cruise have not shared the
screen yet: it would be embarassing.
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