The-Last-Samurai-movie-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? The Last Samurai is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, but it is available through the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn, Billy Connolly, & Timothy Spall

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Written by: John Logan, Edward Zwick, & Marshall Herskovitz

The Last Samurai is a perfect example of how to package the quintessential Hollywood historical drama. You cast a movie star (usually a male) and make sure he a) achieves his goal, b) falls in love with the girl and gets her in the end, and c) always looks good for the camera. Throw in some cheap sentiment, romanticize the time period, present a simplified and liberal take on the politics of that era, stage big battle scenes, provide clichéd, surface level moral lessons, and you have yourself a movie. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you prefer your movies), this is what we have with The Last Samurai, director Edward Zwick’s (Glory, Legends of the Fall) easily digestible historical epic.

The Last Samurai draws its inspiration from a couple of sources. The script is based on 1) the experiences of Jules Brunet, a French Army captain who fought with Enomoto Takeaki in the Boshin War of 1868, 2) Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who helped Westernize the Chinese army, and 3) the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, which was a samurai rebellion against the westernization of Japan. This film is the story of a fictitious character, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a veteran of the Indian Wars. The story begins with Algren as a man who is haunted by his memories of the Native American massacres he participated in during the war. Nonetheless, he is recruited by his former commanding officer, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), someone Algren hates for leading the Native American massacres, and Mr. Omura (Masato Harada), a Japanese businessman, to go to Japan. There, Algren has been instructed to train newly recruited Japanese soldiers of the new Meiji government to take down a samurai rebellion, led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). However, the inexperienced Japanese army’s efforts against Katsumoto and his samurai ends in defeat and Algren is taken hostage by Katsumoto. Algren is taken to the samurai’s village, from which he cannot escape due to the approaching winter season. During Algren’s captivity, he begins to learn about the way of the samurai and earns Katsumoto’s friendship. The more he learns about the samurai and Katsumoto, the more doubt Algren has about where his loyalties should be.

It takes a while to get used to Tom Cruise playing this role. For the entire 1st Act, I was seeing a movie star playing a character rather than just seeing the character. I don’t fault Cruise for lack of trying because if there is one thing that is consistent about this actor, it is that he is a tireless work machine who puts every ounce of effort into his roles. The problems with the character are two-fold. First, the screenplay by John Logan, Edward Zwick, & Marshall Herskovitz does Cruise a disservice by creating a cliché-laden character that we have seen many times over in numerous movies. Perhaps Cruise meddled with the development of his character, but nonetheless, Nathan Algren seems to overcome all of his conflicts easily. His alcoholism is really only addressed in the beginning of the film, but it is forgotten throughout the rest of the movie. It does not take long for him to become accepted by the samurai villagers and Katsumoto accepts him immediately. And his relationship with Taka (Koyuki) begins in a somewhat awkward and strained fashion due to the fact that Algren killed her husband in self-defense in battle, but all of that gets resolved in one fell swoop when she sees him playing with her sons one day. The one aspect of Algren’s character that is well dealt with is his struggle to come to terms with his own actions in killing Native Americans. His remorse allows him to eventually accept the way of the samurai as a way to redeem himself and I liked how that was played out. However, I wish the character was not such a perfectly honorable person. Algren lacks any character flaws and for that, he is not a compelling character. Adding to this is the poor and uninspired dialogue that is written for him (also, there is no way you can learn to speak and understand Japanese in a few short months like Algren does).

The second problem with Tom Cruise is his performance, which never convinced me enough to emotionally invest in his character. Cruise relies more on the film’s action and in giving somber and serious facial expressions to portray his character. From the beginning, Cruise takes a number of missteps in his performance. In the opening scenes of the film where we are introduced to a drunken Algren, Cruise is way over the top in playing drunk. He again overdoes the acting in a later scene in the samurai village where he is haunted again by his memories of the Native American massacre and he is yelling into the night for another shot of sake. Throughout the rest of the movie, Cruise is far more subdued and most of what he does is react to the events in the story. Cruise has never demonstrated remarkable emotional depth and he is so present as an actor that even the reflective moments in this film feel over-the-top. I would not go so far as to state that Cruise “dials in” his performance, but I felt he was more concerned with making sure every frame of the film made him look good (especially that long-flowing rocker hair) rather than go all out with a raw performance that could have been his Lawrence of Arabia.

In stark contrast is the Academy Award-nominated performance by Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins, Inception), who I believe played his first English-speaking role in this film. Unfortunately, Watanabe’s English was very poor and I needed subtitles to make out most of what he was saying. But do not let that discourage you from enjoying his performance because it is the best one given in the film and it is an altogether compelling display of talent. Watanabe’s Katsumoto anchors the story and gives it much-needed weight. I did not really care about whether Algren would overcome his personal demons, win over Taka, or survive the onslaught of the Japanese military. His character was too cliché and uninteresting for me to connect with any of those goals. On the other hand, you connect with Katsumoto immediately and part of that for me may be the fact that the character reminded me so much of Yul Brynner’s the King from The King and I (particularly in Algren and Katsumoto’s first meeting at Katsumoto’s house where Katsumoto asks Algren to tell him about the Native Americans). Behind the character’s exterior hard shell is a warm, inquisitive individual who deeply cares about his country, his village, and the conservation of Japan’s heritage. He is not an arrogant man who dismisses the ideas of others (i.e. Algren’s military expertise) and he is not ignorant of the political realities of his country (i.e. Japan’s inevitable move toward modernism).

As stated before, The Last Samurai is a predictable and clichéd story that recycles often-used narrative elements. However, if you decide to just rehash what Hollywood has done before, you should at least make sure your story has some logic and consistency to it. The film establishes Nathan Algren as a broken man who lives in constant remorse for participating in the killing of Native Americans. He discovered that the Native Americans were not the ‘savages’ that he had always believed them to be. But as soon as this is revealed about the character, Algren agrees to be hired to train the Japanese army to bring down a rebellion of a similar group of people. What’s more, Algren also agrees to work for the same officer who ordered him to kill the Native Americans! When he arrives in Japan, Algren views the samurai as a group of savages until he later discovers otherwise. It would have been better to not have established Algren’s views on the Native Americans and to have introduced him as someone who had no regrets for what he had done in the past. He should have been a man who embraced his war hero status and the actions he took against the Native Americans. When he later travels to Japan and is forced to live among the samurai, there would have been increased tension and conflict in seeing whether Algren would ever change his views.

Another problem with the film is the one-dimensionality of its antagonists. The film presents the introduction of Western values in Japan as an all-together bad thing compared to the soulful samurai culture. The Japanese emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), his business adviser Mr. Omura, and Colonel Bagley are all portrayed as unilaterally bad people. In contrast, the samurai code is presented with a lot of sentimentalism and the samurai are these wise philosophers who know what is best for Japan. However, ultimately, what we ultimately see out of the samurai in the film is nothing more than their lust for blood and battle. Is that really a good thing?

The Last Samurai ends up being a formulaic History for Dummies, but one with high production values and beautiful cinematography by DP John Toll (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, The Thin Red Line). Watch any five-minutes of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and it will put all of The Last Samurai to shame. Kurosawa was able to perfectly incorporate the American Western genre into the political landscape of Japan during the samurai era. The Last Samurai does not even strive to accomplish anything that challenging. Instead, Ed Zwick and his screenwriters give us a Disneyfied, shallow, and sanitized vision of American imperialism. Did we really need to see another American film character enter a foreign culture he knows literally nothing about and teach them what’s what? That is simply patronizing.

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