The Last Samurai

Year: 2003
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Edward Zwick
Producer: Tom Cruise
Writer: John Logan/Marshall Herskovitz
Cast: Ton Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly

At the time of this film's release, a well regarded film magazine reviewed Tom Cruise's presence and performance in The Last Samurai and asked the question; is he a serious actor or a show pony? It's a question that's divided critics since the early days of his rise through the Hollywood hierarchy to reach the pinnacle of stardom. Say 'movie star' and most people still think 'Tom Cruise'.

Because even though he's undisputedly the alpha male of the A list, he's never been in a world-beating movie. For a long time he wasn't even a very good actor, inhabiting two dimensional roles in teenage boy fantasy movies centred on fighter planes (Top Gun), cocktail bars (Cocktail) and racing cars (Top Car, er... Days of Thunder).

Rain Man and The Color of Money proved he's a great actor and he can let go of the limelight for the sake of a great story, but most of his forays into drama (Far and Away, Eyes Wide Shut, Vanilla Sky) have been vanity-driven misfires (while his stone-faced Arnie impression in Mission Impossible 2 doesn't even deserve analysis).

The Last Samurai promised a lot; a genuine leading man in a heroic role with cultural and historical significance, part character drama and part sweeping action movie. The trailer showed epic battle sequences in locations to rival Lord of the Rings (to the extent that the costumes and New Zealand locations will give you a disquieting sense of déja vu).

Unfortunately, Tom the show pony hogs every frame of The Last Samurai, and shoddy material doesn't help. In equal helpings corny, predictable and melodramatic, there's far too much 'Hollywoodisation'. The grandeur and nobility of the samurai way of life (to say nothing of Tom's coiffured locks) are shoved down our throats like cod liver oil, dragging the corpse of every war movie cliché indignantly from its grave. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll gag.

The battle scenes are a big achievement, but us audiences are an unforgiving lot; no matter how much work went into it, seeing a much more epic battle at the gates of Minas Tirith only a month before was too fresh in the mind. And that's if you're not squeamish; at times the bloodletting is almost comically overzealous.

Cruise is washed-up civil war hero Nathan Algren, asked to come to Japan by the liberal government to help modernise its army with the help of western weapons and techniques. The mysterious and staunchly traditional Samurai want none of it and wage a rebellion. The brass make Algren attack with his ill-prepared army and most of them are slaughtered, except Algren himself, who's taken prisoner.

Curious about the courage of the soldier he sees in battle, the Samurai overlord (Watanabe) orders Algren kept alive and taken back to their village. As the wife of one of his victims tends him back to health, he has time to learn the samurai way of life and realise he's fighting on the wrong side. A year later, after living and training with his new friends, Algren joins them to fight against the (now heavily armed and better prepared) Japanese army. Avatar : The Japan years, anyone?

Too many opportunities are taken to show the superhuman courage and honour of the heroes to take The Last Samurai seriously. Didn't we all hope Hollywood had outgrown rules like a single arrow being all you need to kill a bad guy whereas it takes forty rounds of automatic gunfire to stop one of the heroes (and then not enough to kill them, but give them that last few emotional seconds to say something profound)?

Because make no mistake, this is an episode of the Tom Cruise Show. Every colour, lingering look, camera angle and word of dialogue has the express purpose of making Algren/Cruise look fabulous, from his dashing bravado to his appropriately dishevelled locks.

It's too laden with symbolism and goes for too many cheap emotional shots instead of treating the audience like adults. It's also more drama than action so if you're only going for the fight scenes, get a WWF DVD instead. If you're going just for the drama, try to stifle your groans.

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