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Code of Dishonor


The Last Samurai

Edward Zwick, USA, 2003

Rating: 2.8



Posted: December 6, 2003

By Laurence Station

Never bring a sword to a gunfight. This, sadly, is the ultimate lesson Edward Zwick's period adventure tale The Last Samurai teaches us. Which is quite a shame, really. There's so much to work with here, from setting and back-story to interpersonal and international relations -- all of it handsomely mounted and meticulously visualized -- that it boggles the mind how material so pregnant with artistic and dramatic possibilities could be fumbled so badly.

Zwick, who's inhabited this mid-to-late 19th century period before (Glory), clearly enjoys exploring an age of transition spurred by the Industrial Revolution and its innovations both great (the telephone, for instance) and terrible (the Gatling gun). Using the Meiji Restoration in Japan as a jumping-off point, Zwick examines the fallout from the end of over two hundred and fifty years of Tokugawa shogunate rule and the inevitable decline of the Samurai way of life.

Unfortunately, this being a distinctly Western film, we are forced to endure a typically Western setup: The fallen hero with a tortured past offered a chance at redemption. Worse, when said hero is played by Tom Cruise, you know two things from the outset. One, he will not die, no matter how ridiculous the chances of his survival (especially if he's going to go around charging a battery of firing Gatling guns); and two, he will atone for whatever past sins he's committed, and he'll be a better man in the end. American audiences, it's assumed, simply won't accept having the lead actor/superstar (not to mention producer) die in a perfectly believable manner. This nullifies any suspense from the outset, and forces us to watch the plot unfold with lumbering, utterly predictable inevitability.

Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a Civil War hero and veteran of the Indian wars. As the film opens, Algren is a bitter shell, drinking heavily to forget all those defenseless Indian women and children he murdered in the line of duty. (He's so noble!) When a ruthless Colonel (Tony Goldwyn) with whom he served offers Algren a chance to make loads of cash helping Japanese conscripts become efficient Western fighting machines, Algren jumps at the opportunity to escape his demons. Of course, in order for Algren to truly make up for his sundry sins against a native culture, he must ultimately be captured by the very same Samurai warriors he's been charged with training Japanese troops to eradicate. The Samurai must then teach him their ways, and ultimately help him find inner peace. No one who's ever been to a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza will find the ending surprising; suffice it to say, mission definitely accomplished for our hero Algren. He travels halfway around the world, only to find himself.

Also, whatever we might learn about Japanese culture and the Westernization that took place after the collapse of the Tokugawa regime must be filtered through decidedly pro-Western, rose-colored glasses. But in the ultimate hypocritical turn, our redeemed hero, who rejects greedy Western ideology in favor of the Samurai code, amazingly shames pro-Western Japanese (including the Emperor!) into returning, if only symbolically and briefly, to their old ways. It's truly astounding how a big-budget film can condense (and skull-numbingly simplify) foreign cultures as both primitive (technologically speaking) and easily corrupted by the lure of great wealth. Not that Last Samurai aspires to be a history lesson. But from the geography-specific titles to the painstaking technical detail that goes into recreating the film's sense of time and place, one can't help but recoil at the utter disingenuousness of the entire enterprise.

Japanese mega-star Ken Watanabe does a fine job as the Samurai Katsumoto, who attempts to learn from Algren, and in kind teach him Bushido, "the way of the warrior." He's strong and noble, wise and spiritual. Unfortunately, he's also a two-dimensional caricature of what Hollywood considers a stock Samurai character (make him meditate and be really skilled with a sword). There are no flaws, no personalized tics that define Katsumoto as a flesh-and-blood person. Cruise, the paradigmatic Western hero-type, a stranger in a strange land, is the only one allowed to evolve. No matter how contrived the circumstances involved, he alone gets to change, while those around him must settle for dying nobly on cue as Gatling guns chew them to bits.

Given its inherent contradictions, The Last Samurai is rated as highly as it is for three key reasons: The production design is gorgeous, John Toll filmed it, and Hans Zimmer composed a wonderful score. And, less critically, it possesses a few excellently staged battle sequences: the Ninja assault on Katsumoto's compound and the closing showdown behind Westernized Japanese forces and the hopelessly outnumbered Samurai.

In an alternate reality, it would be nice to see a Japanese director's take on the same material. Invaders coming into your homeland, an Emperor fearful of falling too far behind the technological curve, as global markets emerge and nations become Mighty Nations. But something tells this reviewer there wouldn't be that big a part in such a story for Tom Cruise's Captain Nathan Algren.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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