Samurai Stare

Tom Cruise's latest flick is a dung heap--except for the excellent battle scenes.

I hate to hurt anyone's feelings with negative comments about their work, really I do, so when I see a middle-brow crapfest like the execrable The Last Samurai, I always try to sugarcoat my review with lots of positive points.

Like, for example, Tom Cruise's acting: If there's one thing Tom Cruise can do, it's play the part of Tom Cruise. He acts the shit out of the role of Tom Cruise. When you see him up there on the big screen, wearing a kimono and staring intently at nothing, you never think, "Hey, that's a 19th-century Army captain!" No, you always think, "There's Tom!" He's just that good.

The Last Samurai takes Cruise, as Captain Nathan Algren, to Japan, where he's supposed to train the emperor's army and stare intently at nothing. While on the job, he's captured by Samurais, who, if this film is to be believed, are pretty much like Klingons with a better sense of personal hygiene.

The costume drama is a good format for Cruise, and the 19th century the perfect era, because it really highlights his ability to stare intently at nothing. It also allows the writers to use the archaic language of the past to good purpose. Like, when Cruise is upset, instead of saying "Homes be whack," he says, "Shove it up your ass!" Just like they did in the 19th century.

Or the 1980s. Whatever.

Anyway, while living as a guest/captive in a Samurai-controlled village, Cruise talks endlessly in voiceover narration about the mysteries of the Japanese. "These people live each day in the pursuit of perfection," he says, as he watches tea ceremonies and Zen archery contests and Hello Kitty huggings. Staring intently at the heart of Zen, Cruise slowly transforms from a smelly Westerner with absolutely gorgeous pecs into a proud Samurai warrior who bathes regularly and rides into battle to the sound of violins and horns.

Really awful violins and horns. Like, the worst battle music you've heard outside of a Star Wars film or a carrier-deck landing. Composer Hans Zimmer, who's done some decent soundtracks in the past, is on one of those downward spirals that can get you employed by the likes of George Lucas.

However, the music is the only bad thing about the battle sequences. Otherwise, they're better than sex with God. Perfectly photographed and choreographed, each one is a glistening gem embedded in the dung heap that is The Last Samurai. Cinematographer John Toll, who's got two Oscars on his shelf in one of the few categories wherein getting an Oscar indicates quality rather than one's willingness to suck up to whatever political cause is big this week in Hollywood, really shines in the fight scenes.

But it's not just they way they're shot; it's their epic quality that really stands out. In the final battle between the forces of evil and those of wickedness, there seems to be about 200 extras playing the parts of soldiers. Watching it, I couldn't help but think, "Wow, that looks really expensive."

The split in the film between the expert fight scenes and the plodding, A Man Called Horse-dumbed-down-to-below-Dances With Wolves-level plot really grates, though. After Cruise is captured, there are 45 minutes in which no one is beheaded. That's a long stretch without a beheading by anyone's standards, but with T. Cruise waxing Hollywood-philosophical about how much better and more odor-free the Japanese are, it becomes tremendously grueling.

Plus, the best of the supporting actors have vanished by that point. Billy Connolly, who'd be fun to watch even if he was just reading from Dick Cheney's sex diary, plays Cruise's sergeant during the opening of the film, but he's gone way too quick, as though director Edward Zwick didn't want anyone to do a compare-and-contrast with Cruise and realize that Tom is not so much acting as staring.

Kan Watanabe, who plays samurai Katsumoto, is decent, but he's only allowed two modes: quiet nobility and savage fury. This doesn't give him a lot of room to stretch the acting muscles, but it does play nicely into the simplified world view of the film.

That world view is best expressed in the voiceovers that issue from Cruise as he practices his intense stare. You know that standard movie-trailer format, where the guy with the condescending voice says "In a time when ... lived a people who É and one man came to change É but with the help of a good woman É a hero is born"? Imagine that trailer expanded into a 2 1/2-hour long movie, and you have a pretty good sense of how Cruise's narration affects this film.

I really wish director Edward Zwick (best know for his work on yuppie/middle-brow fare like TV's thirtysomething and the unholy Once and Again) had played to his strength and just made an action film. Sadly, he was charged with the task of producing something for Oscar season, so he had to gloop it up with lots of fake depth and fake cultural relevance and fake acting. Oh well. With any luck, this one will be a commercial failure (unfortunately, it made $24.4 million over the weekend), and Zwick will move to Honk Kong and start directing chop-socky flicks and John Woo-esque gangster films and stuff that doesn't include Tom Cruise explaining Japanese culture to a dead hare.

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