Back in 1989, director Edward Zwick helmed a film telling the black man's experience fighting in the American Civil War, but through a white character's eyes and viewpoint. Despite that apparent racial blunder and a few other problems, the resultant, Oscar-winning "Glory" was a wholeheartedly engaging and moving picture. Now, and not that many years later, the director has made a similar film with "The Last Samurai."
Of course, the particulars are different. Rather than black men fighting in 1860s America for their freedom, we have Japanese samurai doing the same in their native land during the 1870s. The rest, however, bears a striking resemblance to that work as combined with large elements from Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves."
As written by John Logan ("The Time Machine," "Gladiator") and Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (making his feature debut), "Samurai" features yet another white Civil War veteran who's sent to deal with the troublesome and feared warriors. Although he's supposed to teach military strategy to an inexperienced, conscript army, he ends up being stuck with those not of his race or culture.
Not surprisingly, he then has his eyes opened by the fact that they're not really that different from him and ends up fighting alongside them. And all of this occurs during a great tidal change in the ways of the land and people, just like those other films.
Along with all of that and enough slow motion footage to keep Eastman Kodak (or whoever supplied the abundant film stock) profitable for years to come, it also features a "load and shoot your gun" training sequence that's so similar to the one in "Glory" that you might begin guessing whether it's homage or a filmmaker suddenly bereft of ideas.
Unlike the earlier effort, however, this one goes on way too long and features not one but two back-to-back climactic battle scenes. It also becomes too preposterous as it crawls to its overlong, overdrawn, overwrought and unwise finale.
If you can accept or somehow ignore all of that, however, the film is fairly easy to watch. Shot in New Zealand that stands in for the land of the rising sun, the picture looks terrific thanks to cinematographer John Toll's ("Vanilla Sky," "The Thin Red Line") glorious camera work and all of the splendid production design (costumes, sets, etc.). Aside from all of that slow motion footage, the various battle scenes are solidly staged and generally exciting to behold.
It's just too bad that the story doesn't come off as gripping, despite the inherent theme and historical backdrop. Every step of the plot feels too calculated and the story and its developments are anything but surprising. There's never any doubt about what will occur and the predictable nature undermines the effort.
That's particularly true regarding the protagonist and related character arc. Although competently and energetically embodied by Tom Cruise ("Minority Report," "Eyes Wide Shut") and despite enough dramatic incidents and developments, there are no surprises, save for the thankful absence of the usually obligatory sex scene (although that is teased several times).
Rather than show a pivotal, character-shaping event right at the onset and then moving into the main story, Zwick ("The Siege," "Courage Under Fire") chooses to drop it in, bit by bit, in various cheesy flashbacks that don't carry their intended weight.
The result is Cruise having to react to that every time - occasionally resulted in a constipated look that, when coupled with him trying so hard to, well, act, makes you worry that he's going to pop - instead of simply having that in the character's background and moving forward from there.
It doesn't help that he's constantly overshadowed by the magnetic presence of Ken Watanabe ("T.R.Y.," "Fight Without Loyalty/Murder") as the lead samurai. Whereas Cruise looks and feels like he's acting (rather than being the character, and there's a big difference), Watanabe effortlessly fits the bill and has an onscreen presence and charisma that even manages to outshine his more famous counterpart.
Tony Goldwin ("Abandon," "The 6th Day") is wasted in his stereotypical villain role and Masato Harada (making his debut) doesn't fare much better as his Japanese counterpart. Koyuki ("Kairo, "Laundry") is fine as the reserved but emotionally turbulent (at least below the surface) war widow, while Seizo Fukumoto ("Fight Without Loyalty-Gang Leader's Head," "Gangster's Wives") and Hiroyuki Sanada ("The Twilight Samurai," "First Love") are solid as two additional samurai.
Timothy Spall ("Nicholas Nickleby," "Rock Star") and Billy Connolly ("Timeline," "White Oleander") are decent playing additional foreigners amongst the Japanese, while Shichinosuke Nakamura (making his feature debut) credibly plays the young and nebbish Emperor who's just a puppet in others' hands until he shockingly develops a backbone, albeit too late.
It's too bad the film is beset by its various problems as there are many good and even engaging individual moments. Terrific from a visual sense but less successful from a storytelling one, "The Last Samurai" feels labored and tries too hard to be the big, glorious epic that it might have been. It rates as a 5 out of 10.