As he recovers from his battle wounds, Algren muses about the Japanese and their strange customs. Director Zwick and his screenwriters (himself, John Logan, and longtime partner Marshall Herskovitz) drag out all the cliches about Asian culture. Theres the silliness of chopsticks, the ever-popular chug-a-lug of Sake, and the sight of men wearing kimonos. You're angry because they make you wear a dress, Algren mocks a samurai watching over him. Hes nursed back to health by the widow of a man he killed in combat. Because she is an inscrutable Asian, were not really sure what shes thinking, but we do have to ask what point Zwick is trying to make. Shes both sad and passive, thus there are few faint clues. Then theres the samurai lord Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe. Algren is fascinated by him, just as the samurai is fascinated by Algren.
Its not exactly a meeting of the minds, but the screenwriters do attempt to generate an odd link between the fighting code of the samurai and the fighting code of Native Americans. I dont know if thats Hollywood guilt at work, but it seems to be a sop to the fact that Europeans decimated entire races of people as they looted and slaughtered their way across the Americas. Soon Algren slips on a kimono and begins practicing his swordplay. Being a stereotypical gung-ho American (and Tom Cruise), he soon usurps the true samurai warriors. Even when he loses at practice, he dusts himself off and starts all over again. You do notice during all of this that Cruises hair and makeup is flawless, even when the wind is blowing or the samurai lord is teaching him a few new tricks. Cruise never really acts, but instead brings his usual packaged screen persona along just as you and I would bring a picnic lunch to the park. Hes Ninja Barbie.
Theres a lot of mumbo jumbo about honor and destiny, but the movie overlooks one salient point. Since were mucking around in actual history here, the rout of the samurai legions paved the way for Japan arming itself to the teeth and its eventual war with Russia, invasion of China, and, while were at it, its ultimate attack on Pearl Harbor. That some of the samurai warriors lived on in Japanese history as heroes of right-wing ultra-nationalists is no small potatoes, but the movie eschews ideology and settles for a plastic view of the world as dictated by Euro-American sensibilities. Equally distressing is The Missing. While watching it I wondered if director Ron Howard knew how racist his movie is. The film is a page torn out of the John Wayne/John Ford playbook. Its a twist on The Searchers, but its the same old song. White settlers good. Injuns bad. The movie is unspeakably awful.
Heres the tale: in the old American West, a woman lives on the frontier. Shes a healer (a doctor without portfolio if you will). Shes good at her job, but there dont seem to be many potential patients about, although we do learn that theres a thriving town nearby where a talkin machine is on display. The woman, wonderfully acted by Cate Blanchett), has two daughters (the younger one is spunky and the older one wants to go to town and have fun). She loathes the frontier life. No little house on the prairie for her. The woman also has a hardy feller, not her husband. That backstory is dealt with quickly. One day her father reenters her life. He some sort of mental mess, wrought with guilt, and seems to have become a fan of the Indian lifestyle. Hes woefully acted by Tommy Lee Jones. She ignores his pleas for a reconciliation. She lets him stay the night, but then he has to go back from wherever it is he meandered. The next day he scoots out of Dodge, or towards Dodge. But, before you can say Natalie Wood, big bad Injuns seize the eldest daughter. Their aim is to gather up some nubile lasses and sell them to mean old Mexicans for bordello work.
Lets pause for a moment. Did this kind of kidnapping ever really take place in America in the late 1800s? Not by a long shot. The movie is based on a novel, which, as we all remember from English class, is fiction.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch (I always wanted to write that and it actually fits), Jones has returned because he sensed danger. The woman/healer/angry mom reluctantly accepts his assistance and off they go in search of the Injuns and the hostage daughter. Another pause: a movie about the role woman played in the Old West would be interesting, but it would probably be mucked up anyway. And, you did notice the macho paternalism of daddy coming back to help his daughter and granddaughter (the womenfolk), didnt you? Well, no surprise here, the small posse tracks down the kidnappers and a Wild West gun battle ensues. I wont tell you the ending, but I will tell you that the movie desecrates Native American spirituality and mysticism. There is little respect in the film for the honor and glory of Indians or their culture. Howard and his screenwriter (Ken Kaufman) are guilty of furthering what can only be called the American Holocaust. They try to have it both ways by making the kidnappers renegades, but one mans enemy is another mans freedom fighter. The leader of the bad Injuns is a character straight out of Hell. Hes a grotesque spittoon of a creature, a Halloween hobgoblin with his pockmarked bulbous head and creepy crawly ways. Hes maniacally overacted by Eric Schweig, a Canadian actor of Inuit and German descent who really should know better.
Ive written about all I can about this piece of cinematic trash, except to state that I truly loathed it beyond contempt. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor
One of the truisms about mega-budget, commercial, studio movies from Hollywood is that they are not meant to edify, but to entertain. In a perfect world, after seeing some pastiche like the dreadful The Last Samurai or the equally dreadful The Missing, audience members might go to the library to find a book about the subject. Something about the samurai warrior culture of Japan or the treatment of Native Americans. Of course, we all know the world isnt perfect; therefore, too many people get their history from movies. The best thing I can write about The Last Samurai, a bloated martial-arts miasma, is that it looks stunning, thanks to John Tolls cinematography. The movie is directed by Edward Zwick (he made the overrated and equally bloated Glory) and at its core, the film celebrates war. Tom Cruise stars as Captain Nathan Algren, U.S. cavalryman and Civil War hero, who, post-conflict, has become a bitter, self-obsessed, obnoxious alcoholic. Hes a sideshow attraction, a show business hack, and he becomes even more misanthropic after his former commander, General George Custer, leads his men into slaughter at the Little Big Horn. That the Indians were defending their own land is not part of the white mans mythology, and that distortion exists to the present day. After time (the overlong movie runs nearly 2 and 1/2 hours), Algren is recruited by a glib Japanese bureaucrat. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to modernize the Emperor Meiji's army. The young emperor is facing a samurai uprising, which is called a rebellion of yet another tribal leader. He may be suffering burnout and piercing memories of bloody battlefields, but Algren is still capable of being a lean, mean fighting machine. After he trains the Japanese in the art of gunplay, theres a fierce clash between Algrens charges and the samurai warriors. He fights like a madman (hes Tom Cruise, after all), but he still loses and becomes a prisoner-of-war and is taken into the hills, where he discovers the joys of the samurai lifestyle and goes native.