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Cruise fails to convince in epic

Jack Watkins | Wednesday, February 18, 2004

It’s hard to appreciate a good epic – like Return of the King or Master and Commander – with no correspondingly bad epic to compare it to. Fortunately Tom Cruise and director Edward Zwick have contrived to solve this problem by providing us with The Last Samurai. Cruise is Nathan Algren, a Civil War veteran who went on to serve with General George Custer in wiping out Native American tribes. He is hired by the Emperor of Japan to train his soldiers in modern warfare so they can defeat a traditionalist uprising. Cruise is captured in a battle and meets the leader of the rebels, the noble Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Inevitably, Cruise becomes enchanted with the samurai culture and agrees to help Watanabe in his rebellion against the Emperor, a fight that can only end in a glorious, death-defying, hopefully Oscar-winning charge. If this all seems a little paint-by-numbers, that’s because it is. Katsumoto is little more than the stereotype of a noble samurai, the plot is just another riff on the theme of evil, encroaching modernity, and Cruise is the man of 20th-century PC values trapped inexplicably in the 19th century.Cruise, in fact, is miscast. Simply put, he lacks the ability to rise above his own well-known persona, making him completely unconvincing as either a bitter Civil War veteran or a convert to the samurai code. This makes scenes that would have otherwise been merely weak or clichd ridiculous, such as the samurai gaining respect for Cruise because he refuses to quit when clearly beaten in a mock combat, or, most notably, Cruise’s laughable audition-style speech in which he describes the horrors of war.For all the movie’s flaws, it still packs a certain emotional punch. One is forced to admire and respect the warriors in their fight against the Emperor. At some point, one thinks, “You know, this movie won’t be that bad, as long as the ending isn’t some absurd, anti-climactic betrayal of the themes of the story.” Sigh. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that such an optimistic thought is misguided. The ending to this film left this reviewer trembling with rage. Just one final note – often, screenwriters are able to defend their sappy and gutless films by using the phrase “based on a true story.” The Last Samurai is not based on a true story, and it’s not even particularly well researched. The supposed “issues” driving the rebellion are all fictional, probably because the real motive for samurai rebellions in 1877 (Imperial refusal to invade Korea) was not particularly sympathetic. In other words, in addition to being bad drama, The Last Samurai is also bad history. It’s actually pretty much bad at everything, except for filling this critic with a burning desire to see a better movie.