The Last Samurai
starring Tom Cruise
3 stars

review by Stephen Notley

It's not The Last Samurai's fault that it's trying to be taken seriously as an epic a mere two weeks before the King Returns and erases it from memory forever. Sometimes you're up against superior forces and you just have to go in swinging and die honorably, and since that's the general theme of the Last Samurai anyway, I credit them with going for it. Still, it's just not that great of an epic. 

True, the story has a bit of grand sweep to it. We start with Tom Cruise as a drunk and disgruntled post-Civil War captain earning a few bucks doing rifle demos while plagued with memories and flashbacks of scalping as well as an unfortunate little incident in which his regiment wiped out an innocent Apache village. Enter a Japanese official who hires Cruise to come to Japan and train the Imperial Army in modern (ie. Civil War-style) fighting techniques in order to crush a rebellion led by horse-and-sword-style samurai. It's a nice little snapshot of an odd period in Japan's history when it was struggling to modernize, bringing in consultants from the Western world, adopting Western customs and modes of dress.
Soon enough we're seeing Cruise forced to take his ill-prepared musketeers up against a band of rogue samurai, and we're not terribly surprised to see Cruise's regiment minced by the samurai who then take injured but still-pluckily-fighting Cruise prisoner. And we're even less surprised when, a la Dances With Wolves, Cruise slowly recovers and learns to respect and emulate his noble captors, finding peace in the gentle swordfighting of the samurai.

It's quite dull, this part of the movie, mostly because of the bland one-dimensionality of the characters. Cruise himself doesn't really have to do much; lacking any real beliefs of his own, he soaks up the samurai code like a sponge. Cruise duly comes to appreciate the honor and code of the samurai while the samurai are duly impressed by his plucky American never-give-upness. There are no reversals, no surprises. And of course it helps that the samurai leader Katsumoto (played awesomely by Ken Watanabe) is a noble, intelligent, flawless, English-speaking gentle man with loads of karma, far cooler than Cruise's jerky American commander or the weasely Japanese official who hired him.

So Cruise flips, easily, effortlessly, without having to give up anything of himself, and signs on to help the noble samurai in their final battle in the name of… honor, I suppose. At least that's how it's billed, but in truth, it comes off as something a little different. As the Last Samurai presents it, it's not that war itself is horrible, an orgy of ugly useless death; just that certain ways of waging war are cooler than others. Samurais are just intrinsically cooler than Civil War-style musketeers and so it's sad to see the passing of those better, purer times when a battlefield was strewn with dead bodies chopped to pieces by highly trained swordsmen rather than riddled with bullets by dummies who can barely reload their muskets. Truly, the business of killing large numbers of people lost something special that tragic day, something that can never be recovered. No doubt in 200 years we'll be seeing similar movies or sense-films about a brave division of Chinese soldiers gallantly throwing their lives away against an irresistible squad of robot laser-units, and we'll wipe away the same tears as we do in The Last Samurai.

So, without a terribly involving internal struggle for Cruise or a truly interesting comment on the perils of modernization, Last Samurai just slugs away, delivers the big "dramatic" moments with metronome predictability and finally leading all the way up to a climactic battle that's maybe --maybe?-- almost as good as the mid-movie warg battle in The Two Towers. So, the Last Samurai tries; it goes out on the field of battle and gives its all. It's just that its all ain't that great. But if you like Tom Cruise, hell, go.