The Last Samurai (review)
Stating the Obvious
Behold the Prestige Picture(TM), the moviegoing experience that lets people who don’t want to be surprised at the movies feel like they’re seeing an Important Film about important things like Honor and Respect and Love and War and Poetry and History. So of course there’s nothing in the least bit challenging or unexpected in The Last Samurai. Like all Prestige Pictures, it’s Important-Lite, all beautiful, vapid visuals and entirely predictable emotional sweep and a movie star getting down in the mud and Acting. The Last Samurai is a starving-artist painting to hang in the living room of your mind because it matches the sofa there and doesn’t clash with your status quo and never demands anything of you except that you tell it once in a while how pretty it is while it reinforces everything you already think you know. The film is so innocuous that it’s barely even there, blending into the beige walls of inoffensive mediocrity.
Samurai is a Cliffs Notes version of itself that launches directly into a voiceover that informs you what the theme of the film will be: Honor, and how nobody has any anymore. It would have been crystal clear without this announcement that Samurai is all up on Honor — who’s against it, anyway? — but it feels the need to underscore that point lest people watching Elf in the next screening room over miss it. And just so there’s nothing in the least disturbing and startling about the film — we don’t want anyone leaving the multiplex all upset or with new thoughts in their heads or anything — all epiphanies and revenges and other moments that might make anyone uneasy are telegraphed miles out.
Like when Tom Cruise (Minority Report, Mission: Impossible 2), as Our Hero Nathan Algren, who’s tormented over the Bad Things he did in the war — and it doesn’t matter which war, though here it’s the wars the U.S. army waged against the Indians in the post-Civil War period, and you can tell how Algren suffers because he drinks too much and is all grubby and unshaven though honestly I’m hard pressed to tell the difference between tormented-grubby-unshaven and chic-fashionable-stubble. Anyway, Algren is arguing with his compatriot, Tony Goldwyn (Abandon, An American Rhapsody) as the slippery-semipsychotic-dead-eyed Colonel Bagley, about going to Japan to get paid for killing “Japos.” Bagley’s afraid Algren won’t take the job, seeing as how he’s all prettily tormented and all, and Algren assures him that if the pay is good, Algren will kill anyone, but that Bagley should know that he, Algren, would kill Bagley for free.
And so right there you know, without question, that not long before the credits roll and maximum nonsuspense has been mined from Algren and Bagley’s nonrelationship, Algren will kill Bagley for free in some dramatic way that will have the please-don’t-challenge-us audience cheering. And nothing will have to be done about developing real reasons for an animosity so strong that it’s enough to allow us to give permission to Our Hero to kill someone else without any genuine motivation to do so except that Bagley’s fills the Bad Guy slot because we’ve been told so.
Of course, mostly what you end up thinking during the few Algren-Bagley nonconfrontations is, Wow, Tony Goldwyn is like 10 times the artist Tom Cruise is and how amazing might this film have been if Cruise and Goldwyn switched roles and you could really believe that Algren is the dead-inside shell of a man we’re supposed to think he is? Then it might have been something truly moving to see this man grow as a human being and awaken to ideas he hadn’t considered before, as what we’re told happens to Algren when he is taken prisoner by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, who is thoroughly worshippable and too bad he’s stuck in this film), the samurai warlord Algren was supposed to be teaching the Westerized Imperial army to fight. It might also be less cutely funny that Katsumoto’s sister, Taka (Koyuki), in whose home Algren stays — Katsumoto’s village is so remote and snowbound that there’s no need for shackles to keep Algren prisoner — thinks Algren smells like the pigs. Ha ha: Tom “Sexiest Man Alive” Cruise smells like the pigs! Ha ha: A vital and passionate young woman would rather commit ritual suicide in the face of the indignity of having Tom Cruise in her house. And it might be a more hard-won victory for the film when Taka inevitably falls in love with this man who smells like the pigs and tracks mud into her beautiful home and oh yeah, killed her husband in battle. I mean, Cruise doesn’t do it for me personally, but I’ve heard tell that some women find him quite the thing. So it doesn’t matter how completely and repulsively alien this woman finds Algren — there’s an air of absurd certainty to what should be difficult and awkward and absolutely uncertain.
But there you go: It’s imperative that there be no doubt or any ambiguity to trouble the nice moviegoers, who only want to have a good time and leave feeling all warm inside about being smart and noble Americans like Algren. Like how right there at the very end, when the last samurai whom we’ve come to respect and admire ride into hopeless battle and get mown down by semiautomatic progress, we can all feel okay about that. Cuz you can’t stop progress right? As long we make our obeisance to old-fashioned niceties like Honor and Courage, no matter how silly and irrelevant they may be to our wonderful mechanized modern age, everything will be just fine.