The conflict between technological advancement and the retention of a more traditional way of doing something is as old as technological advancement itself and as new as the music industry’s conflict with internet file sharing services. One of history’s more bloodier clashes between the old and new was the modernization of Japan in the 1880s, a time that provides the backdrop for the latest Tom Cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai.
Cruise is Nathan Algren, a Civil War vet who has also seen time fighting Indians with the United States Cavalry. Along with his old friend Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly), he is recruited to go to Japan and train the Emperor’s army in modern warfare tactics. The Emperor needs his troops ready to put down an uprising being led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a samurai who is opposed to the Emperor’s modernization of Japan. When Katsumoto begins to attack railroad lines, Algren is ordered to cut his training short and lead his troops into battle with disastrous results. The soldiers are routed and Algren is taken prisoner.
Taken to Katsumoto’s village for the duration of winter, Algren has a chance to see and understand the other side of the conflict he had been hired to fight in. Katsumoto is fascinated with the stories that he has heard about Custer’s bravery, while Algren hates Custer, as he knows what he was truly like as a man. However, as Algren learns more about Katsumoto, he sees that he contains the nobility, honor and bravery that the Custer of legend lacked in reality. In addition, Algren finds himself attracted to Taka (Koyuki) the wife of a samurai that Algren had killed in battle. When spring arrives, Algren turns down an offer of freedom in order to join Katsumoto’s men in their struggle to preserve their way of life. Even those not well versed in Japanese history should be able to guess that things do not end well.
Cruises delivers a performance that rivals the powerhouse performance delivered in 1999‘s Magnolia. While not as flashy as that role, his work as strong and emotional here. Equally strong is Watanabe as Katsumoto, a man who feels he must do what is right for his country, even if it brings him to odds against the Emperor he has sworn allegiance to.
Unfortunately, the film’s screenplay isn’t as up to par with the performances. While the screenplay nicely sketches its characters in the first third of the film and provides them with closure at the end, it sags in the middle leaving both characters and audience adrift. The middle section doesn’t fully gel, with several scenes lacking any kind of through line or cohesion between them. No real indication is given as to why Taka would suddenly change her feelings towards Algren. Also, it is hinted that Algren sees a connection between Katsumoto and the persecution of the American Indians that he participated in and is still haunted by memories of. This idea remains underdeveloped though.
Edward Zwick’s direction is solid but not remarkable. Although he does stage some visually interesting shots, much of the film is fairly languid in terms of visual energy. One shot during the film’s climactic battle sequence showing a Gatling gun shooting down the charging samurai seems like a fairly heavy-handed image stating the film’s “old versus new” theme. Unfortunately The Last Samurai is nothing more than a summer blockbuster with pretensions of being a being a dramatic Academy Awards contender.