Zen in the Art of Blockbuster
Film review by: Witney Seibold
No doubt Edward Zwick’s film “The Last Samurai” will be nominated for Best Picture in February. This is not to say it is one of the best pictures of the year. Far from it. The Academy just seems to like grand epics of this sort; large-scale battles, personal redemption, easy-to-understand philosophy, exotic locales, etc. Its main competition in the Oscar race, for the time being, seems to be Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander.” That film had the gall to be quaint. The Last Samurai, conversely, is huge and bold and junky; it pulls no punches, leaves no formula unexplored, and, sadly, feels, at its core, somewhat exploitative. It’s still a fun adventure epic, and a well-made one at that, but that doesn’t save it from the lingering feeling of falsehood I picked up from the screen.
The film follows Nathan Algren, a fading alcoholic Civil War lieutenant played by Tom Cruise. Cruise can be a fine actor (see “Magnolia”), but the audience (and I sense he) seem more impressed these days with his status as a superstar than his savvy as an actor (you may note that the advertising posters feature no other actors but he). Algren is exhumed in the trenches of his alcoholism by the Japanese. He is asked to train the Japanese soldiers how to slaughter a group of samurai rebels that resist Emperor Meiji’s restoration. In the first battle, he is taken hostage by an English-speaking Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, whom I recognized from “Tampopo”), the head of the rebel samurai. Katsumoto holds him prisoner, sort of, in his village. Algren is soon off of the booze, learning about that inscrutable Eastern philosophy stuff, and romancing the widow of a man he killed (!). No points for guessing that he ends up fighting on the side of the honored samurai against the encroaching Westerners.
It’s an old formula: the bitter and/or wounded gaijin/gringo/goyim/cracker is transformed by the quaint philosophy of the noble savages (I just wonder if the reverse would be as well received: minority enlightened at the hands of their white captors). “The Last Samurai” is indeed a good one… just too Hollywood.