The Last Samurai is epic only by proxy of its length and astronomical budget, which go hand in hand. When Warner Brothers throws out $140 million and Tom Cruise, that means you’ll sit there for two-plus hours and like it, pal.
Or maybe not, if you’re not for movies that are too long and slow and hindered further by a bad ending. It’s wrong, right down to what Cruise is wearing to the fact that it begs for one more honorable death.
Still, it’s tough to hate the sweeping spectacle of any movie such as this, with its blend of rain, blood, action and mud. It’s The Last Samurai’s most captivating element, particularly in its climactic battle, a brutal clash that’s like Akira Kurosawa’s version of Braveheart.
Director and co-screenwriter Edward Zwick nails the surface pleasure of a good fight, but there are no surprises, and it’s hard to care what happens to anyone. It also doesn’t satisfy our bloodlust for watching bad guys bite it. The offing of a main nemesis is truly anticlimactic.
Its plot has jokingly been compared to Dances with Wolves, and its unoriginal adherence makes those slams fairly founded. Replace John Dunbar with Nathan Algren (Cruise), a drunken ex-soldier paid handsomely to teach the Japanese army modern tactics. Substitute the Sioux with the samurai, who capture Algren and take him prisoner.
Tended to by samurai leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), Algren walks around, gets beat up, walks around more, learns how to use a sword and fights ninja assassins. Meanwhile, he discovers kids are cute, as is their mother Taka (Koyuki), the lady putting him up.
It sounds flip, but in this long hour, Cruise goes from acting like an insolent diner at a Japanese restaurant (a scene where he pleads for sake) to surrogate father and husband with minimal transition.
The closest the film comes to intense, internal characterization is a handful of conversations between Cruise and Watanabe.
Watanabe brings unshakably stoic gravity to the film, and he owns its three most powerful moments. It’s a memorable performance striving for better material — something Cruise has done in the past but forgets to do here.
As a result, the film becomes detached and workmanlike, with Algren’s lazy narration. Much like the samurai, that device is worth remembering for the good it did back in the day, but not so practical now.
At the center is a star that can’t be faulted for playing it safe after the unconventional Vanilla Sky and Minority Report. When Cruise is on autopilot, he’s still not bad. But his stern indifference pops up at all the wrong moments, namely a tender kimono-fitting scene with Koyuki, who tries to stir up enough emotion for the both of them.
The Last Samurai looks great with fantastic action, but it feels like a half-hearted warm-up for something greater. Cruise and $140 million might get you a marathon movie, but it lacks the little things that keep it from feeling that way.