It is award season now and every second film you will see at your favourite theatre would most likely be another candidate for trophies and industry back-pats. Genre films like "The Last Samurai," we are being asked to believe, should be no exceptions. Except of course, this particular film has not won any major accolades at any major ceremonies recently. And, yes, there is a very good reason for that; "Last Samurai" is simply not that good. Sure, it is an extravagant epic about cultural imperialism and the honourable ways of the samurai but behind the superficial intelligence hides a gleeful desire to offer mere entertainment and little else.
The story opens at the crack of the 19th century with disillusioned Civil War hero, Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) who is asked to train Japan's new imperial army to quell a pandemic rebellion by samurai warriors that want to preserve their Bushido code of courage, honour and duty against the corroding western modernism sweeping the country. When Algren is captured by samurai leader, Katsumoto (the charismatic Ken Watanabe), he is taken prisoner. Algren who is damaged goods – both physically and emotionally - is then nursed back to health in the rebels' remote stronghold. There he also comes to admire and believe in their way of life and eventually trades in his pistol and uniform for a sword and kimono!
Director Edward Zwick has been making crafty epics for a long time now and he adopts a tried-and-tested line of approach with "The Last Samurai" also. Zwick is well known for using rising stars as lead characters to drive the soul of his films. This technique has served him well in many of his previous efforts (most notably with Brad Pitt in "Legends of the Fall") but Tom Cruise's already established, piercing celebrity status makes for a sharp contrast to the demands of the embittered character he plays. Moreover, the central theme of "The Last Samurai" is the grandeur of the ancient Japanese culture. Whilst the film starts off on the right note by indulging us in the politics and debate surrounding tradition-bound samurai and the modern imperial state, we are soon thrust head-first into sword plays, gritty battles (which are all breathlessly choreographed) and the story's episodic second-half. So, what should have been an absorbing personal account of how a prejudiced foreigner begins to respect and take comfort in an appealing Japanese culture instead depreciates into a pastiche of clichés and political correctness. Sad given that there is such good material here.
Not likely to endure the tides of time, "The Last Samurai" is at the every least undeniably entertaining. That it unfairly raises our expectations with the promise of delivering an intense story about feuds in medieval times that were to act as metaphors for moral and social battles (past and present) is really a shame. - Adnan Khan