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The Last Samurai

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  • Noel Vera
    The Ass Samurai Noel Vera Edward Zwick s The Last Samurai, starring that wonderful Hollywood star Tom Cruise, is hilarious crap. Cruise doesn t even begin to
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 30, 2004
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      The Ass Samurai

      Noel Vera

      Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai," starring that wonderful Hollywood
      star Tom Cruise, is hilarious crap. Cruise doesn't even begin to
      convince as Nathan Algren, a broken-down Civil War soldier haunted
      by memories of Indian massacres (at most he looks like he has a
      serious migraine). He probably sprouted that full beard (if he's
      actually capable of growing a beard) to try help his performance (it
      doesn't work); he tries all sorts of things, like knitting his brow
      to indicate intensity, and yelling at the top of his chipmunkey
      voice to indicate fury (doesn't work either). Cruise's Algren goes
      to Japan and essentially undergoes the same "callow man attains
      wisdom and maturity" schtick he's been doing his entire career,
      from "Risky Business" through "Jerry Maguire" to this movie--you
      might call the picture "Jerry Maguire Dances With Wolves in Japan."

      But it's not just Cruise's career that's on autopilot; maybe the
      reason why he was cast here is that his schtick dovetails into the
      kind of "clash of cultures" genre this movie falls flat on its face
      trying to transcend--you know, Western foreigner comes to strange
      country, blunders about, eventually learns the customs while the
      people learn a trick or two from him; foreigner and natives, working
      together, win the big battle, or baseball game, or whatever. Along
      the way the Western foreigner nails the most beautiful native in the
      village, almost as if it were his birthright.

      It's possible to do this kind of movie well, if not with a lot of
      originality: I'm thinking of Fred Schepisi's "Mr. Baseball" where
      Tom Selleck bumped his head into low Japanese roofs (Cruise's too
      short to do this "endearingly clumsy Westerner" trick), stuck his
      chopsticks into his rice (brings extreme bad luck), and ultimately
      learns enough of proper baseball form--from a Japanese coach, yet!--
      to win the game. Maybe the biggest differences between "Mr.
      Baseball" and "Samurai" is that the former has a sharp sense of
      character (it's perhaps the performance of Selleck's career), knows
      it's a genre comedy and nothing more, and is directed by a real
      filmmaker (Schepisi did the great "Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith"
      and "The Devil's Playground"--he's not at the top of his game here,
      but at least he knows how to do decent comedy).

      Maybe an even better example of what can be done with "clash of
      cultures" movies is Jean Renoir's near-great "The River," about a
      British family living in India. Renoir is sensitive enough to
      realize there is much that is mysterious and complex about Indian
      culture, is realistic enough to know he can't cram everything he
      senses into a two-hour picture. His film seems to reflect this
      realization, that the best strategy would be to stand respectfully
      outside the culture looking in with alert, perceptive eyes (along
      the way, Renoir encouraged a young man by the name of Satyajit Ray
      to go into filmmaking).

      No such luck--or tact--with Zwick. He and Tom Cruise showed up on
      Turner Classic Movies one weekend, with a festival of excellent
      samurai films: Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," "Yojimbo"
      and "Throne of Blood," and talked in between showings about how much
      they loved and admired these pictures. And what do you know,
      watching "Last Samurai," you realize that the movie borrows from the
      forest sequence in "Throne of Blood," the battle sequences in "Seven
      Samurai," and the fencing sequences in "Yojimbo," with artillery
      sequences from Kurosawa's "Ran" and "Kagemusha" thrown in for good
      measure. Zwick borrows heavily, in itself no crime, but he doesn't
      use what he borrows very well; he stages the battles with several
      times the originals' budgets but only a fraction of the filmmaker's
      talent (Tarantino is guilty of the same sin, only his bag of
      borrowed goods is far more extensive).

      The Japanese are pictured with such nobility they're embarrassing--
      even Kurosawa never made them look this good. Koyuki as Taka, in
      particular, the wife of the samurai Algren kills (almost by
      accident) is either a lousy actress or badly directed because she
      insults the memory of her husband by looking like she's halfway in
      love with Algren the moment he's carried into her house (no sex, but
      there's a scene where she dresses Cruise in her husband's suit of
      armor that's almost as good; her man must be spinning in his grave).

      Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto (loosely based on a real historical
      figure, Saigo Takamuri--ironically, a hero to ultra-right military
      fanatics like Yukio Mishima) acts circles around Cruise with his doe
      eyes which can either glitter like hard diamonds or turn meltingly
      soft and soulful. Tony Goldwyn as usual is effectively despicable
      (and totally wasted) as the mercenary Col. Bagley.

      Maybe the film's one clever conceit is to equate the outdated
      Japanese warriors with the Apache and Navajo tribes Algren fought
      against in America (only the Apaches and Navajos had the cunning to
      take white men's weapons--the horse, the rifle--and use them even
      better than white men ever did)--but this idea is buried under the
      mound of steaming hot pieties that Zwick and Cruise pile on top of
      Katsumoto and Algren. The rest of the cast (William Atherton shows
      his face, and Billy Connoly makes a "what the heck?" appearance as a
      crusty old officer) does well enough; it's the low-powered star
      performance in the middle of it all that pulls the whole project
      down, miserably.

      The movie is an insult to the Japanese culture it grossly
      misrepresents, to the many Japanese films it copies from (badly),
      and to the Meiji government (the emperor of which is played by
      Shichinosuke Nakamura as an impotent, dandied fop), which may have
      been hard on samurai but was a boon to the ordinary Japanese
      (there's a reason why they outlawed swords on the streets--it was to
      help stop the practice of cutting down innocent bystanders who
      happen to look at samurai the wrong way). I'd recommend watching
      this film alongside friends and loved ones, with a big basket of
      deep-fried tofu to fling at the screen.

      (First published in Businessworld, 1/23/04)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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