The Last Samurai 

(R) 3 1/2 stars

(R) 3 1/2 stars
The Last Samurai is a sprawling epic about the Japanese Samurai Revolt of 1876-’77, written and produced by Hollywood with a white male American movie star in the lead role, because that’s how we do things in this country, damn it. As far as sprawling epics about other cultures starring white American males go, it’s entertaining enough. The battle scenes are fascinating, as are the glimpses into samurai life. There are some humorous moments, along with a few touching ones and most of the acting is first-rate.
Not bad for a Dances with Wolves knock-off. As most of you will recall, Dances with Wolves starred Kevin Costner as a burned-out Civil War soldier that becomes a member of a Sioux tribe and ends up under pursuit by the government he once served. In The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise plays Capt. Nathan Algren, a burned-out ex-soldier shilling rifles in San Francisco. Algren drinks a lot, trying in vain to forget the fateful day when, under the command of Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn, laying the villainy on a bit thick), he participated in the massacre of a tribal village that included women and children. Hey, what if the tribe attacked by the troop that Cruise’s character belonged to turned out to be the one that Costner’s character belonged to? The filmmakers could do a prequel with a face-off between Cruise and Costner — sort of a frontier version of Freddy vs. Jason. But I digress. Life changes for Algren when old friend Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly) shows up with dastardly Col. Bagley. Seems the emperor of Japan, a big fan of the modern American way of life, needs someone to train his conscript army in up-to-date battle techniques. And what better choice could there be but an embittered drunk? Once in Japan, Algren finds himself dealing with a timetable that will force troops to fight prematurely. Why bring a man from the other side of the world to instruct soldiers and then send them into battle before they are fully trained? So that the opposing force of renegade samurai warriors can win and capture Tom Cruise, of course. After an impressive battle sequence, samurai leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) takes Algren back to the distant samurai village, sparing his life despite the fact that one of the warriors slain by the foreigner was his brother-in-law. Even weirder, Katsumoto has Algren stay with his sister, Taka (Koyuki), and her son, despite her being the widow of his brother-in-law. How nice for Taka. Incidentally, if you’re concerned that I might be revealing too much of the story, relax. The film is two hours and 34 minutes long; what I described only covers the first third of it, and besides, the rewards of the production come from the big battles and the little moments, not from the plot points. As for the remaining two thirds of the epic, I will only say that the samurai village section is fascinating, and that the movie wraps up with a spectacular battle. The Last Samurai is a great-looking movie, even though the computer graphics and matte painted backgrounds are sometimes less than convincing. While the fellows playing the bad guys overact, most of the remaining cast is good. Particularly impressive is Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto, casting a big shadow as the reflective warrior leader. Tom Cruise nicely underplays his part. Funny thing, the only times I find him unconvincing are when he does interviews; leaning forward too far, grinning too broadly and laughing too easily and too hard. Appearing as himself, Cruise comes off like a salesman desperately pitching a time-share. And please note that, while Kevin Costner became part of the Sioux tribe in Dances with Wolves, Tom Cruise becomes a veritable co-leader in The Last Samurai. I guess it makes sense. After all, how could the samurai possibly fight the battle of their lives without a white American man helping to lead the charge?

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