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(2013) (Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones) (PG-13)

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Drama: A U.S. general tries to find his missing Japanese girlfriend in post WWII Japan, all while attempting to figure out if Emperor Hirohito should stand trial for Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
It's 1945, Allied forces have defeated Japan, and the U.S. has become the occupying police force there. Led by General Douglas MacArthur (TOMMY LEE JONES), the military is present to keep the peace and begin Japan's long road to recovery. But they're also there to find and try various war criminals, an assignment that MacArthur gives to Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (MATTHEW FOX). He has a past history with the country and its people, what with having dated Aya Shimada (ERIKO HATSUNE). She was a Japanese foreign exchange student he met back in the states in 1932 and he ended up following her back to Japan where he studied the people and their culture, including interviewing Aya's uncle, General Kajima (TOSHIYUKI NISHIDA).

Assigning his personal driver, Takahasi (MASAYOSHI HANEDA), to try to locate Aya in the bombed out country, Bonner's war crimes task becomes more complicated when MacArthur informs him he has ten days to determine whether still reigning Emperor Hirohito (TAKATARO KATAOKO) had any hand in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor years earlier. Realizing that the folks back home want the ruler convicted and executed but also understanding that doing so could create unrest and even a revolt among the Japanese people, Bonner must proceed with caution.

His task is made even more difficult, not only by General Richter (COLIN MOY) who questions his motives, but also the fact that Hirohito is unapproachable and surrounded by armed loyalists. As he searches for evidence regarding the emperor's involvement in the war, Bonner continues his hope that he'll find Aya.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Picture this pitch for a movie. A man is assigned by an egocentric superior -- who's prone to loud demands and outbursts -- to determine if a powerful figure might be responsible for a number of murders in the past along with the resultant subsequent fallout. But that person of authority is difficult to gain access to, is surrounded by loyal followers, and if brought up on charges, all heck could break loose due to the actions of those loyalists.

At the same time, our investigator searches for his missing former girlfriend whose well-being may have been affected by the aforementioned consequences of the figure's actions. Thus, it's a race against time on both fronts, and to make it all the more interesting, much of that is based on a true story.

If that sounds like the plot for a typical detective sort of movie, you'd be on the right track. But in this particular case, it's one set nearly seventy years ago in a once exotic but then demolished land. That country would be Japan, the time would be right after the end of WWII, and the title of the pic would be "Emperor."

In it, Matthew Fox ("Alex Cross," TV's "Lost") plays real-life Brigadier General Bonner Fellers who was assigned by General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) to determine if still-standing Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoko) had any hand in the attack on Pearl Harbor that dragged the United States into the war. Due to the emperor's still loyal to the death followers, the figurehead leader has been put on a protected list and his palatial grounds are off limits to any of the occupying American forces.

With MacArthur gunning for the Presidency back home, he wants Fellers -- who has a history with the country and its people -- to decide whether the Emperor should be brought up on charges (which would appease those back home but possibly lead to revolt in country) or pardon him (which might create the opposite reaction). Given just 10 days to complete the task, our protagonist digs where he can, all while hoping his new driver (Masayoshi Haneda) might be able to locate a Japanese teacher (Eriko Hatsune) he first met in college and then followed to the land of the rising sun.

It sounds interesting, and I'm sure a decent documentary could be made about it. But as a piece of "inspired by real events" fiction helmed by director Peter Webber ("Girl With a Pearl Earring") and written by David Klass ("Walking Tall," "Desperate Measures") it comes off as a fairly boring and on-the-nose experience that only history buffs might find intriguing and/or entertaining.

Which is too bad considering the built-in potential at the ready for anyone willing to take and craft it into something captivating, engaging and/or thought-provoking. It does attempt the latter with various bluntly applied thematic bits including the unspoken contrasts and comparisons between the two leaders (MacArthur and Hirohito) as well as Japan's version of imperialism vs. its earlier British and other national counterparts.

Unfortunately, Webber and company hammer home those points, including through some weakly applied bits of voice-over narration (representing the protagonist's writings regarding the events, place and his mission). I've never been a fan of such tacked-on talky-ness (since it's usually a fast and easy way to impart information rather than write effective dialogue and scenes), but the filmmakers could have done themselves and the viewers a favor by watching how Francis Ford Coppola did something similar in "Apocalypse Now."

In fact, they should have watched that entire picture to see how to effectively stage a military detective story. I can still recall the sights and sounds of that pic despite it being years since I last saw it. I attended the press screening for "Emperor" last week and most of it's quickly vacated my memory and certainly my psyche.

It doesn't help that Fox feels in over his head in this role and -- due to a combination of that and a lackluster script -- never grabs the audience like a character such as his should. Jones' MacArthur is more interesting at least in terms of flamboyance, but the actor ends up looking, sounding and acting like, well, Tommy Lee Jones. Eriko Hatsune isn't given enough time to flesh out her fictional character, which also holds true for Haneda as the protagonist's widowed driver; Colin Moy as another general who's always pointing out the faults and/or calculations of others; and especially Kataoko as the title character.

Given the history involved, it would have been far more interesting to see the story told from his standpoint, particularly since few nowadays know anything about him (I was shocked to learn -- from the "whatever happened to" onscreen text -- that he lived and served in that same role until 1989). While I knew even less about the real life Bonner Fellers before seeing the film, I don't know much more afterwards.

With production values that indicate a fairly small budget, a languid pace that could nearly cure insomnia and a waste of historical material ripe for the picking, "Emperor" isn't bad enough to warrant any call for cinematic hara-kiri. But it does mean that the film earns just a 4 out of 10 score.

Reviewed February 27, 2013 / Posted March 8, 2013

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