- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

Tom Cruise’s status as a movie star doesn’t necessarily betoken credibility when he plays costume roles. Particularly costume roles as miserable as Capt. Nathan Algren. The ostensible hero of “The Last Samurai,” a historical saga about a late 19th-century crisis in Japanese politics and military affairs, Algren is a bad-luck mercenary if there ever were one.

Kevin Costner’s Civil War veteran in “Dances With Wolves” found renewal on the frontier as an adopted member of an Indian tribe. We’re meant to believe that Japanese adoption might eventually diminish the guilts and demons haunting Capt. Algren, introduced as a surly disgrace to the uniform in San Francisco during the centennial year of 1876.

A veteran of the Civil War and Indian wars (where he served, to his shame, with Gen. George Armstrong Custer), Algren has permitted disillusion and self-loathing to transform him from decorated hero to drunken sellout. He makes his entrance employed as a cynical carnival attraction.

A former colleague, Tony Goldwyn as Col. Bagley, obviously despised by Algren, makes an offer that is nevertheless preferable to small-time show business: military adviser to the Imperial Japanese Army, which is being reorganized along modern lines by a young emperor convinced that his country must reconcile itself to European and American influence.

A dubious choice on the face of things, Algren looks even more dubious when his first trainees are overwhelmed by an internecine enemy: die-hard samurai led by an esteemed warlord named Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the actual title character.

Spared from battlefield death when a display of banner-swinging ferocity impresses Katsumoto, Algren winters as a convalescent captive in the leader’s home village. He is entrusted to a reluctant domestic angel named Taka (Koyuki, Japan’s photogenic answer to Natascha McElhone), an obedient kinswoman whose spouse was killed in battle by her unwelcome new houseguest.

Despite the American’s uncouth manners and tendency to wake up screaming from war nightmares, Algren is regarded as one of the family, not to mention the widow’s new sweetheart by springtime. A convert to samurai tradition, he is also avid to join Katsumoto in a futile do-or-die battle against the burgeoning and mechanized national army. The rebel paragon regards the emperor as gravely deceived by advisers who favor progressive ways.

It might have been edifying if somewhere along the way a major Japanese filmmaker had dramatized the historical conflict between samurai who embraced the new order and those who refused. Unfortunately, American director Ed Zwick hasn’t made up for the omission by shifting priorities to Mr. Cruise as an expendable interloper.

“The Last Samurai” invites runaway disillusion by pretending that this benighted soldier of fortune deserves to be the apple of assorted eyes, on and off the screen. On the contrary, Algren betrays too many problems with allegiance and reality to command dramatic allegiance of his own.

A rummy, a slacker, a head case and a turncoat, he seems to snap out of stupors only while killing. A fascinating syndrome, but why admire him for facilitating wholesale slaughter in a losing cause?

By the time Mr. Zwick miscalculates with a battlefield finale meant to evoke massive loss and irresistible pathos, “The Last Samurai” has accumulated a towering heap of absurd impressions.

The false notes begin during a costume fitting, when Algren lets Taka dress him in the armor of her late spouse. In a similar respect, the Imperial Army permits Katsumoto to dress the battlefield to his own advantage as an opening gambit. Pitched battles unfold as arbitrarily as the typical movie prizefight, where one boxer soaks up countless knockout blows before shifting gear and becoming the whirlwind puncher.

While fighting under Japanese flags, Tom Cruise, Tony Goldwyn and Billy Connolly still get to hit every target at which they aim a weapon. Western military service is generally scorned or regretted, but never their marksmanship.

You can’t have a name performer who fails to shoot straight. You can have an entire prestige movie whose intentions backfire, repeatedly and grotesquely.

*1/2

TITLE: “The Last Samurai”

RATING: R (Graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details, in extended battle sequences; occasional profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Ed Zwick. Screenplay by John Logan. Cinematography by John Toll. Production design by Lilly Kilvert. Costume design by Ngila Dickson. Music by Hans Zimmer

RUNNING TIME: 144 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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