A coffee-table book posing as a prestige epic, Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai comes wrapped in a handsome, leather-bound cover, with each shot set against magnificent "magic hour" sunsets, snow-capped peaks and rolling foothills, or cherry blossoms in full bloom. If it hadn't cost $100 million to make, it might have come free with a subscription to Time-Life books. Made under the long shadow of Akira Kurosawa, who set an impossible standard with the one-two punch of Kagemusha and Ran, the film seeps reverence from every pore–for Kurosawa, the samurai code, Native Americans, and the bravery of all honorable fighting men in Japan and America. What it lacks is artistry, those small touches of personality that might have distinguished its lugubrious history lesson from a bunch of pretty pictures with captions telling the story. In a film which clearly demarcates the line between good and evil, to the point where the samurai and the Cheyenne are perfectly analogous, Tom Cruise plays the one ambiguous character without ever tarnishing his vaunted image. As a decorated Civil War captain disillusioned by the Indian Campaigns in the West, Cruise wears the guise of a soulless mercenary for sale to the highest bidder, but his slumbering heroism could hardly be more transparent. Offered $500 a month by Japan's young Emperor to modernize its conscript army, he trains a ragtag group in firearms and military formations, but can't drink away his memories of mass slaughter under General Custer. After being captured during a battle against samurai rebels, who reject the country's ongoing Westernization, Cruise spends time as a captive in their rural village, where he comes to respect their discipline and honor codes. Languid doesn't begin to describe his physical and spiritual rehabilitation under samurai leader Ken Watanabe and the fetching widow (Koyuki) of a warrior he killed in combat; both potentially dramatic situations are smothered in tasteful reserve. As with his films Glory and Legends Of The Fall, Zwick shows an abiding interest in 19th-century history and romantic figures swept along by changing times, but he flattens them out into picture postcards without any texture or life. Every frame suggests a flank of stylists with spritzers lurking just offscreen. Once it finally gets to the climactic battle sequence, The Last Samurai orchestrates the action with impressive clarity and punch, yet it's hard to forget Kurosawa, who could find poetry in the sound of whizzing arrows or an isolated woodwind score. With his pricey diorama, Zwick shows the ambition of an artist, but leaves the imprint of a hack.
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