Movie Review by Reece De Ville
Starring: Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn
Director: Edward Zwick
“Ooooohhh show me heaven”….sorry, drifted off there. You see the problem with Tom Cruise is he’s almost too iconic. I’ll admit that he’s quite an adept actor and that his films have brought in massive worldwide box office, but then there’s that grin. Ah yes, the grin. However, you old sceptic you, THE LAST SAMURAI mixes things up a little with the new addition for the millennium ‘shiny hair and beard’ combo. The times they are a changin’…
Cruise is Nathan Algren, a washed up relic of the civil war. Taken to appearing at sideshows and carnivals promoting the Winchester rifle, the battles once fought are now lost amongst a haze of whisky. But, on meeting with his old colleague Zebulon Gant (Connolly as a Scotsman playing an Irishman…when will they learn), Nathan is intrigued by talk of a journey to Japan to train the troops against the rebel samurai. So it’s off to the land of the rising sun to teach those pesky samurai a thing or two…
Comparisons will naturally be made with Richard Chamberlain’s SHOGUN as that too deals with a fish out of water, learning the ways of a foreign land. However, in trying to escape what could have been an obvious mini-series, Zwick strives for stunning vistas and sweeping battle scenes that can’t help but drag the viewer away from anything resembling characterisation. Connolly’s Gant is nothing more than a brief interjection of comic relief with Tony Goldwyn’s Colonel Bagley appearing all too briefly as Algren’s motivation for hatred towards himself. Indeed, the supposed terrible deeds committed by Bagley and Algren in a previous battle are never explored fully – leaving some confusion as to why Algren is so torn up. It’s also fair to say that Cruise cannot convince as a washed up drunkard – all toned body, neatly shorn hair and dazzling smile – and thus his journey from zero to hero feels somewhat forced and untrue.
However, the battle scenes are stunning, and mostly un-CGi’d which is impressive. As mentioned, the beauty of the Japanese/New Zealand landscape is lovingly captured by Zwick and his cinematographer, and does help to give a sense of the magnitude of the task facing Algren and his captors.
Spall is underused in a role of little more substance than narrator, with only Ken Watanabe providing superb support as the exiled samurai leader. Indeed, this is more Watanabe’s film than Cruise’s (awards judges, take note). Cruise gives an all round accomplished performance, yet too many times we are treated to the sweeping shots of hair flicking, staring almost lustily at the camera and Cruise just being….well, Cruise.
Similar to Zwick’s earlier tale of civil war horror – GLORY, THE LAST SAMURAI drifts away from the harsh realities of war to paint a much more muted view. Sure there are the gruesome deaths and the doomed retaliations, but underpinning this is a tale of unrequited love – for both the wife of a personally slain enemy and of a culture fast becoming ancient.
Overall, an entertaining film, but not one to take as a serious piece of historical revelry.