Archive for Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Last Samurai’ explores East-West culture clash

(R) ***

December 3, 2003

It's interesting to examine how Hollywood has viewed Japan recently.

Within the past few months, three high-profile films were released
that all hinge on a Westerner's perception of the Land of the Rising
Sun.

First came Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," which centered on
two Americans (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson) who bond with each
other while sequestered in a Tokyo hotel. Through their eyes, this
Eastern culture - specifically its language, customs, humor and
values - was presented as impenetrable.

Quentin Tarantino's violent revenge thriller "Kill Bill" found its
star (Uma Thurman) confronting the Japanese on their own turf and on
their own terms - in a hip Tokyo restaurant with only a sword in
hand. The resulting bloodbath left the Western hero still standing
while nearly 100 vanquished foes lay at her feet.

Now comes "The Last Samurai," which is probably the most respectful
of these efforts in how it portrays an American's integration into
the Japanese way of life. Yet this absorbing, poetic tale is also the
most mythologized of these movies.

Set in 1876, Tom Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a man billed as
"a true American hero." Actually, he's a bitter, alcoholic veteran of
one too many battles. A particular American Indian massacre that he
took part in continues to haunt his soul.

When Algren's former commander Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn)
approaches him with a business proposition, he agrees purely for
financial reasons. The task takes him across the ocean where he is
commissioned by the young Emperor of Japan (Shichinosuke Nakamura) to help modernize the ruler's army.

However, a renegade group of samurai is opposed to this incursion of
foreign ways. Led by the magnetic Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), these
warriors are viewed by the Emperor as a threat to his goal of opening
up the country for trade with the West.

Algren is wounded and taken prisoner after his disastrous first
skirmish with the samurai. Although the captain is at first treated
as a "stray dog or an unwelcome guest," he gradually begins to
appreciate the ways of his captors. Soon that becomes respect. Then
loyalty.

Within a year, he is fighting at the side of Katsumoto against the
modern armies he was originally recruited to train.

While it's obvious that Cruise put a lot of time into this role -
both in handling the language and the sword - there is still a
certain quality he struggles to overcome. Cruise radiates MOVIE STAR
in a part that would be better served by a character actor.

Cruise is much more persuasive in modern fare like "Jerry Maguire,"
where his frat boy swagger echoes the character. He still can't
completely bury himself in demanding period roles like his
contemporaries Russell Crowe or Sean Penn.

That said, he's quite convincing in the numerous action sequences.

It's refreshing to see a martial arts-heavy project that isn't
choreographed with the circus-like histrionics of master Yuen Wo
Ping, who seems to have a hand in nearly every Asian-influenced movie
released, from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to "The Matrix" to
"Kill Bill."

This is a film where the hand-to-hand fighting relies on pure
precision not rope tricks and gymnastics. These frequent combat
scenes - the highlight of which is a night-time attack by masked
assassins - are undeniably thrilling. Most importantly, they feel
authentic.

Director Ed Zwick ("Glory") has shown himself a master of
coordinating large-scale epics, and he does not disappoint here.
Perhaps Zwick's standout sequence is during Algren's first encounter
with the samurai. As his raw troops await the clash, the mood
expertly shifts between suspense, dread and despair. When the samurai
do emerge from the misty forest, they appear like masked ghosts.

The film's main theme of a traditional way of life threatened by
modernization leads to a climactic battle between the samurai and a
technologically superior army. Algren's story builds to a profound,
resonant end - then it goes on for another 10 minutes.

The script (by "Gladiator" scribe John Logan and co-producer Marshall
Herskovitz) insists on adding a lengthy, extraneous scene with the
wimpy emperor that throws cold water on the emotional mood. Then this
is followed by voice-over narration that ties up everything in a neat
bow. Cue commercial ...

Ultimately, however, "The Last Samurai" is caught in a cinematic catch-22.

This type of film benefits greatly from a $100 million budget. (It's
impossible to envision the picture staged properly as an indie
production.) This adds up to period detail that is exquisite. The
cinematography, the costumes, the choreography and the locations are
all top shelf. The international supporting cast is impressive.

The one provision is it takes a big-time movie star to recruit the
amount of financing that allows for all these elements.

Cruise tries hard to make us believe he is a spiteful, post-Civil War
military veteran who turns into a lethal samurai warrior. Often, he
just comes across as Tom Cruise wearing a kimono.

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