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Last Samurai, The

dir: Ed Zwick
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Well, well, well, a film with Tom Cruise in it is a joy to review, surely. The review practically writes itself: "Flashes teeth a few dozen times, flicks his hair around, acts all good an' noble, show's over, nothing to see here".

Well, not quite. You see, in this film, Tom Cruise has a beard.

That's got to be a whole other level of acting right there. I can't remember another film where he's sported a real beard (which is why Born on the Forth of July doesn't count, that beard was as fake as a
pornstar's breasts). You can see his commitment to such a role by his decision to grow some facial hair. In fact, this film is a delight for people interested in facial hair. Of course it's not about facial hair explicitly, but, you know, subtext and all that.

What this film does have is wonderful locations, a formulaic script, and great big dollops of man-love. Not the sweaty, hairy, prison-inspired, Queer as Folk kind, but the brotherly "I can cry because you're dying and no-one's going to think I'm gay" kind of love. It's the kind of man-love that makes men consistently call The Shawshank Redemption one of their favourite films of all time. Here in Australia, whenever footballers are interviewed and asked what their favourite film is, 9 times out of 10 it's the bloody Shawshank Redemption. Men. Big Manly Men. Having relationships with other men untainted by the presence or existence of women. Rousing stuff.

Cruise gives what is for him something of a subdued performance for most of the film's duration. There aren't many sequences where he screams at the top of his lungs. He does have one of those scenes where he makes his face go all red and makes the veins stick out in his forehead, he loves doing that. But all in all he does okay in the film by not doing too much. For a man tortured by his conscience, though we hear about it many times, at least we don't have to watch him overact about it ad infinitum.

The film is set in the 1870s, in a Japan that looks remarkably like New Zealand with the aid of CGI for the cityscape parts. Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, an officer who fought in the US Civil War and later took part in the heroic victory over the savage Cheyenne Nation. He also personally knew Colonel Custer, and considered him an arrogant, foolish man. In short he has seen too much of war to be able to live a normal life. His guilt over his part in massacres of the Cheyenne turns him into a fatalistic drunk who is looking for an
interesting way to die.

The opportunity to make a lot of money and fuck cute Japanese babes takes him, his Irish buddy Sgt Zebulon Gant (played by legendary Scottish comedian Billy Connelly) and his hated superior officer Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) to the Floating World.

In Japan toothy boy Cruise is called upon to train some conscripts who wouldn't be able to shoot the ocean if they were standing in it. He gets to yell a bit and look alternatively sad, drunk and pissed off, which is a wonderful range, I'm sure you'll agree.

The reason he is training these men is because some naughty samurai have gone all rebel and decided to oppose the process of modernisation that the country is undergoing. Whilst they are portrayed as luddites
smashing the fancy new toys of the industrial revolution, their true purpose, or at least that of their leader Katsumoto (played well by Ken Watanabe) is to retain the "old" ways and remind the Emperor of his duty to his people.

Surprising absolutely no-one, in their one and only confrontation with the samurai Algren's conscripts die miserable deaths and Algren himself is captured after killing one of their number. Seeing Algren's valiant desperate last stand, and being reminded of a dream where he sees a white tiger fighting for his life, Katsumoto decides to spare Algren in order to learn about his enemy.

Awfully convenient, don't you think? Algren shacks up with the wife and family of the samurai guy he killed, is initially viewed with hatred and suspicion by the villagers and other villagers, who eventually blah blah blah the only viewers who won't predict the character arc and plot points would have to be under five years of
age. Sure, many, many people have noted the similarity between this film and a certain Kevin Costner film, which I have sworn not to mention in this review. Truth be told, it's an old warhorse of a plot which has been used in dozens of books and stacks of films.

As a short list: A Man Called Horse, Shogun, Local Hero, The Four Feathers, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Jim, The 13th Warrior, The Mission, Last of the Mohicans, Black Robe, Little Big Man, the list goes on and
on. It's an idea as old as imperialism and colonialism. Scratch that, it's an idea as old as people from one culture getting into conflict with people from another culture and finding out the merits of that other culture. The British phrase for it is called 'going native'. In other words the phrase in context is, "You haven't gone native on us, have you old boy?" uttered with quiet panic and horror by a white suited middle-aged man sipping a gin and tonic whilst being fanned by a dark-skinned slave.

So whilst it may seem to parallel that earlier film about boogieing with canines, it has many antecedents. All the same the screenwriter John Logan has shamelessly appropriated elements from that earlier film in the same ruthless manner that he ripped off Ben Hur and The Decline of the Roman Empire for Gladiator. The fucker doesn't have an original thought in his entire head, but he certainly has a copy of Robert McKee's Story on hand to make sure his scripts are predictable and safe even for a viewer's pets.

The formula is, um, so formulaic that you're watching the clock timing when the next inevitable plot point is going to come along, that is if you're thinking about it too much. Other standard expectations that never let you down: main character connects with a little boy; has a moment of affection with a woman (just to prove He's Not Gay) but doesn't take it too far (since Cruise himself consistently comes across as a curiously sexless being), and being hated by another guy until you prove to him that you're a bad-ass too, in this case with a sword. He comes to love these simple, honest people who strive for perfection in everything they do, and not only that, despite lacking spirituality in his own life, he gets to connect with something greater than himself and finds peace in the teachings of these noble simpletons. How fucking special.

Having the plot device of Dunbar, sorry, I mean Algren keeping a diary so as to give him an opportunity to dump a load of narrative on the audience seems awfully convenient, as does much of this film. It is a story told by conveniences rather than organic character transitions or good plotting. So the ending is inevitable, that doesn't mean the journey there has to be by the most predictable route possible.

The film suffers from a stack of anachronisms and simplifications as well. Also the manner in which it deals with Katsumoto's status in his community and amongst the Japanese people is highly questionable. Whilst he purports to be against the evil Omura (Masato Harada) and his manipulations of the Meiji Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura), who is portrayed as someone slightly less masculine and assertive than The
Artist Currently Known Again as Prince, he is essentially a lord fearing the loss of his power. He also fears a world in which when he rides down the road, the peasants won't be grovelling in the dust. Any film that portrays the retention of the 'old ways' and a brutal feudalism as a good thing has a hard sell indeed with me.

In effect it ends up being quite a conservative film, as is any film that rambles on at length with reactionary zeal about how wonderful things used to be and how much they suck now. However that doesn't mean the film is without virtue or charm. Cruise delivers a decent performance, Watanabe delivers an excellent performance, everyone delivers good work. Director Ed Zwick, a director I have a fair amount of time for does a wonderful job with a mediocre script. Admittedly many people will find it hard to find Cruise believable in this as in everything. I found that the beard really helped

The action sequences are wonderful. Truly, they are wonderfully filmed and orchestrated. The sword fights are far better than I would have expected. Putting aside some of the moves our heroes end up doing with
their katanas, the choreography, even including Cruise, is superlative. The big battle at the end is wonderfully realised. The New Zealand landscape is lovingly filmed and the cinematography overall is a joy to behold.

Emotionally, despite how simplistically the film chugs along, I found it engaging. The relationship with Katsumoto strikes the right notes, and the understated and ambiguous relationship (until the awful
"have-your-cake-and-fuck-it-too" muddled ending) with the beautiful Taka (played by the very edible Koyuki) is decent enough, though highly unlikely.

I was never bored, and I bought what they were selling for the majority of the film's duration.

Of course, knowing what I know about Japanese history, I can also see how awfully they muddled up history in order to give the false impression of a happy ending. Um, was the audience supposed to forget that roughly thirty years later Japanese armies would be raping and massacring their way through China and Korea? There is a evil treaty which keeps being alluded to in the film, between America and Japan, which we are supposed to believe doesn't get signed because of Algren's actions and the last stand of the samurai. How truly wonderful and noble.

Um, guys? That treaty was signed. It was signed in 1854, and was called the Treaty of Kanagawa, signed a year after Commodore Perry told the Emperor to open up Japan to trade or he'd blow the fuck out of them. This treaty ended centuries of Japanese isolationism, whereby they were forced into an unequal trading relationship with America, and began indulging in diplomacy and dreams of imperialist expansionism. It led directly to the fall of the Edo Shogunate (not a bad outcome in itself) and the rise of Japanese fascism during the Meiji Restoration (a very bad thing indeed).

Sometimes I wonder if the people putting movies together hope that audiences are even dumber than they actually are. Were people supposed to forget that the shit was going to hit the fan in the worst way and
just assume that everything was hunky dory with such a wonderful happy ending? There hasn't been an ending this shameless since the end of Braveheart, where we were told that due to William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and the dedication of the Scottish warriors that eventually Scotland would drive out the English and regain their FREEDOM!

Eh? Since when?

I must have been in a really good mood, because even that wasn't enough to make me dislike the film. It's an entertaining big budget extravaganza set in a time and place that is very attractive to me, with sword fighters dressed in cool armour doing cool things with swords. So I liked it, a lot. More than I should have. And certainly more than you will.

7 beautifully articulated blood sprays out of 10

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"I have introduced myself. You have introduced yourself. This is a very good conversation." - The Last Samurai

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