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Shogun Redux: Cavalry officer Tom Cruise migrates so far west he ends up in Japan, in 'The Last Samurai.'

Samurai Chipmunk

Tom Cruise learns to stop and smell the cherry blossoms in 'The Last Samurai'

By Richard von Busack

NO ONE seems to know how to make Westerns anymore. Heroes in today's men's-movement oaters always go to the prairie to heal, just like the TB cases that used to move to Arizona for the climate. When John Wayne rode his horse across Monument Valley, it was clear what he got out of life. Today's filmmakers feel compelled to put that feeling into words. And since no one can make a Western, it's no real surprise few people can make an Eastern, either.

Is The Last Samurai worse than Dances With Wolves? Not really, though both criminally drawn-out epics are new versions of Lost Horizon. In both, war-sick Europeans learn to heal amid simple, welcoming people who are at one with nature. Director Edward Zwick leads Tom Cruise through a healing process. Capt. Nathan Algren (Cruise) is supposed to a veteran of the U.S. 7th Cavalry who served under (and despised) Custer. He's haunted by the Indian killing he did on the Plains. Pickled in booze though he is, he's tapped in 1876 for a job in Japan as a military adviser to the emperor.

Never let it be said that emperor of Japan is a small role, and the Meiji emperor is played with almost mystic intensity by the Kabuki actor Shichinosuke Nakamura. The emperor sports a small chin beard that looks like a question mark. And the way Nakamura plays him is in accordance with the popular Japanese view of the emperor: as a human god. He's so in touch with the ineffable that he's easily misled by war ministers. The emperor's drive to westernize Japan has alienated one of his most powerful lords, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who openly rebels.

Still drunk and full of self-loathing, Algren leads a troop of conscripted peasants against Katsumoto's samurai. The troops are slaughtered in a foggy wood, and Algren is the only survivor. His fierce fighting reminds Katsumoto of his clan's totem, a white tiger, so Algren is boarded with Taka (Koyuki, as pretty as a camellia), the widow of a warrior Algren speared in battle.

In her simple way, she knows how to detox him from alcohol. Her downcast eyes grow slowly more upcast as Algren learns the language and kendo sword fighting. By the summer, Algren goes back to intercede between the emperor and the lord, but the Western troops, led by Algren's former commanding officer and nemesis, Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), intervene.

We watch the traditional Japanese village, built in a secluded valley in New Zealand, where the peasants go about their daily crafts, and it's like a World's Fair pavilion. We hear about what we're seeing in a voice-over supposedly excerpted from Algren's diary: "There is indeed something spiritual ... in this place."

Zwick can be excused for bolstering Cruise's performance with narration. Even in his 40s, Cruise's infernal boyishness hasn't faded. He's particularly resistant to maturing, and anything he does here--wearing a notch in his eyebrow in tribute to Brando's Terry Malloy, husking his voice down to a Clint Eastwood murmur--doesn't obscure the easygoing, puppyish man-child Cruise has always been. Observe one moment where Algren checks out the way his new kimono flows over his body, assuming a crouching posture, admiring himself--this is neither the place nor the time you'd expect a reference to the underwear dance in Risky Business.

Cruise appears in almost every scene. It's odd how the vibe of this movie changes when we cut to Billy Connolly (as an Irish soldier) or Timothy Spall as a civilian photographer who, unaccountably, serves as the narrator at the beginning and the end. Connolly is older and Spall is very stout, but both deliver a feeling of seasoned manhood--of regret, depth and gravity--that Cruise apparently will never have. Zwick did the far superior Glory, and watching Cruise I never missed the brooding machismo of Matthew Broderick so much in my life.

The Last Samurai is truly old-school Luddite work. The villains are machinery; gattling guns, railroads--all the same thing. Cruise's Algren feels about the villagers the same way Costner's Lt. Dunbar did about his Sioux in Dances With Wolves. They're honest people without mixed feelings about killing. They've reduced their actions to a simplicity and purity that we in the West lost long ago. Consider how many people will see The Last Samurai compared to the number who will see the Yasujiro Ozu retrospective at the Pacific Film Archives this December, and such naive sentimentality seems all the more depressing.

The modern history of Japan is marred by pollution and overcrowding, but someone needs to say that the breaking of the power of one of earth's most arrogant hereditary nobilities wasn't a bad thing. And a nation that learned to get along without swords deserves a little applause. I'd swap this whole simpleminded epic for a few frames of Toshiro Mifune telling us everything about the glory and decline of the samurai system by loping, scowling and scratching his fleabites.

The Last Samurai (R; 144 min.), directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the December 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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