'Samurai' can't match Zwick's past 'Glory'

by John Kim | 1/5/04 6:00am

Hailed as a surefire Oscar vehicle for Tom Cruise, "The Last Samurai" is, in fact, something less than the hype would indicate. The film is suitably epic, and in the course of its 144 minutes, it adheres to the heroic movie formula almost exactly. However, for all its grandiose gestures, "Samurai" is strangely passionless, and what results is a movie that seems at times unsettlingly disingenuous.

Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a war hero who now spends his days drowning his sorrows in cheap liquor. He is offered a hefty payday to travel to Japan and train the country's woefully ill-prepared army. Once there, he is quickly captured by samurai forces resisting the gradual modernization taking hold of their homeland.

To his surprise, Algren finds himself at peace within the samurai village. When the time comes for the samurai to make their last stand against those who would destroy their way of existence, Algren must choose between the life he knew and the life that he has come to respect.

Director Edward Zwick borrows heavily from other films at the expense of offering anything of original vision. There are certain occasions, for example, when "Samurai" is too reminiscent of Zwick's own "Glory," except with Japanese people instead of Morgan Freeman.

There are worse things than copying classic films like "Glory," but Zwick's 1989 Civil War piece had the advantage of being based on actual events, which lent the story an inherent historical legitimacy. "The Last Samurai" is not based on any actual event, and while fiction can produce great drama, the fabrication in "Samurai" shows.

Some have accused the film of racism. Such complaints are extreme, but intentional or not, this movie does have moments of heavy-handedness in presenting the samurai as "noble savages." In particular, the frequent shots of Cruise as he looks on approvingly, in order to let us know that the samurai are in fact the good guys, become a bit excessive.

The film would have also benefited from not having such an obvious celebrity in the lead role. Other more gifted actors are soon able to make you forget them and get lost in the character instead.

Cruise completely lacks the ability to do this. It's always "Tom Cruise as a sports agent," "Tom Cruise as a lawyer," or in this case, "Tom Cruise as a samurai" on the screen. One can debate if this is the fault of Cruise himself or just an unavoidable consequence of his superstardom, but it detracts from the film regardless.

"The Last Samurai" is not a bad film and definitely not as awful as a Tom Cruise samurai epic could have been. The pace is rollicking, the cinematography is beautiful and the battle scenes are expertly shot and liable to get the adrenaline pumping, even if they remind a tad too much of "Braveheart."

Criticism aside, "The Last Samurai" does elicit some well-earned emotion by the time the closing credits roll. In the end, the only disappointment with "Samurai" is that it had the potential to be so much more.