The Last Samurai, Odeon Leicester Square
Japanese samurai epic is given a Hollywood makeover in Cruise's quest for elusive Oscar
Wednesday 07 January 2004
Tom Cruise needs an Oscar, and everything he has done in the past year has been devoted to its pursuit. When he turned down the lead in Cold Mountain - according to its producer, Sydney Pollack, he asked for too much money, though Cruise denies this - it was partly because The Last Samurai offered a better bet for that elusive gold statuette.
Cruise's recent nomination for a Golden Globe is at least one indication that he made the right decision. In Cold Mountain he would have been a haggard deserter with a tragic destiny. In The Last Samurai he looks mighty and very much taller than he has any right to be. He seems to be the essence of Hollywood-inflected Bushido, the Japanese honour code of the ancient samurai. The year is 1876. Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, an alcoholic former officer, not far from the embittered man he played in Born on the Fourth of July. When we first encounter him he has been hired by an arms manufacturer to extol the virtues of the new Winchester rifle on a travelling tour - but he drunkenly shoots off rounds in the public hall where he is speaking, and is dismissed.
It is clear that Algren is a man poisoned by his time in the US army fighting Native American tribes, and in the first indication of his anti-heroic position, is disgusted by the behaviour of General Custer. So instead of heading out west and trapping beaver and skulking in the mountains like Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, he heads east and dons a kimono.
He is hired by the young Emperor of Japan to modernise the Japanese army, along with his old nemesis, an officer who authorised atrocities against Indian women and children. The Emperor is pursuing a course of breakneck modernisation throughout Japan, despite armed opposition from traditionalists who want to keep the ancient ways alive.
In effect - though the film glosses over this - Algren is a mercenary hired by a foreign government in a state of civil war with its own population. This is a film with as much initial animation as a Japanese karesansui stone garden, but soon Algren is busy training the Japanese army to use guns rather than swords and arrows.
He becomes interested in books on samurai culture, provided by an English trader played by Timothy Spall. Unexpectedly, Algren is captured by his enemies and whisked away to a remote mountain hide-out, where he quits the booze and learns to become a samurai, and almost by accident acquires the wife of a warrior samurai he killed in hand-to-hand combat.
He switches sides and joins the rebels upholding the ancient feudal and caste system of Japan. When he finally bows before the Emperor in the last scene, and implores the Emperor not to give up the old ways of Japan, a single tear drops down the young king's face.
It is the opposite of How the West was Won - the former individualist Algren submits to the will of an ancient imperial system and in essence endorses the fascist samurai culture.
Its busy final battle scenes partly make up for the amazingly dull and protracted middle section. Back in 1985 the producer of Ran - the last great Akira Kurosawa samurai epic - reportedly told a press conference that the US response to the film "would have been much better had it starred Tom Cruise". Little did he know how prophetic those words would be.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 10 ways we damage our teeth – without realising
- 2 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 3 iPhone 'effective power' text: how to be safe from iOS bug that lets people crash your phone
- 4 Photo of wedding guest proposing to girlfriend in front of bride and groom goes viral
- 5 Charlie Charlie Challenge explained: it's just gravity — not a Mexican demon being summoned
Royal Academy of Arts' Tim Marlow: Bronze statue of lovers embracing at St Pancras station is a lesson in 'how not to do' public art
Britain's Hardest Grafter: Petition set up as Twitter reacts to BBC 'poverty porn' series pitting low-paid workers against each other
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
Big Brother contestant Aaron Frew removed from house for 'inappropriate behaviour' after flashing fellow contestants
ASAP Rocky gives nauseating response to explicit Rita Ora rap: 'I'm not saying she's a terrible person'
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote