In one of his sunnier moods, Jean-Luc Godard might have tacked onto The Last Samurai the subtitle une étrange aventure de Tom Cruise. We’ve seen sci-fi Tom in Minority Report, Venetian-masked Tom in Eyes Wide Shut, latex-face Tom in Mission: Impossible, even topknot Tom in Magnolia; but who would have imagined he’d turn up in East Asia in 1876, draped in a robe and miming a sword fight? In the role of Capt. Nathan Algren, a veteran of Custer’s 7th Cavalry, Cruise sails to Japan as a mercenary and at a certain moment finds himself alone in a rural house, where he decides to try out the clothes and military drill he’s been observing. To the credit of The Last Samurai, the ensuing romp recalls, just a little, the scene of teenage Tom in Risky Business playing air guitar in his skivvies. The Last Samurai knows itself to be une étrange aventure and is sometimes willing to be amused by it.
Mostly, though, The Last Samurai aims for, and achieves, epic sweep: the glory of tradition-bound warriors hurling themselves against the modern world, the grandeur of Hollywood offering two points of view on everything. Do you believe the West corrupted the rest of the world, devastating it with commercialism and machines of war? Then The Last Samurai is for you. It celebrates the medieval virtues of Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who starts out as the captor of Captain Algren but gradually becomes his leader and friend. If you’re proud of America and what it’s achieved, then The Last Samurai is for you, too. It proves that Tom Cruise is so cool, he can teach the emperor of Japan how to be Japanese. Take it seriously if you like, or think of it as just skivvies and air guitar; but either way, The Last Samurai knows how to please.
It begins, in fact, by distinguishing itself from less competent entertainments. When first seen, Captain Algren has been reduced to putting on Wild West shows for the Winchester rifle company. The script he’s been given is pompous, the set design cheesy, the sales pitch blatant; and since Algren performs in a state of drunken disgust, the actor, too, is inept. From this introduction, we’re meant to conclude that Algren hates himself for what he’s done as an Indian fighter and hates the people who ignorantly hail him. But the scene might also convey a second message: that this skit for the Winchester company is unworthy of Tom Cruise. He requires a luxury vehicle, like the movie you’re about to watch.
So the thunderous splendors of The Last Samurai unfold; and again, to the movie’s credit, they’re as good as advertised. What Captain Algren observes of his samurai captors might be said as well for cinematographer John Toll and production designer Lilly Kilvert: In whatever they do, they strive to be perfect. The young actress Koyuki is perfect as a stoic widow, who must put up with, and almost come to love, Captain Algren. (She’s the only woman in the movie, which is one more than you get in that other boys’ adventure, Master and Commander.) Above all, Ken Watanabe is perfect as Katsumoto, with his head like a round, sculpted stone and his voice like a rumor of earthquake. Although there’s a bit of totemic nonsense about Algren and a tiger–the direction by Edward Zwick, and the script by Zwick, John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz, are not entirely perfect–it’s clear to everyone, Tom Cruise included, that the real man in this movie is Watanabe. If the outward story of The Last Samurai concerns Algren’s progress from a show-biz version of heroism to the real thing under Katsumoto’s tutelage, then the inward action is about Cruise’s effort to be less of a star and more of a Watanabe.
Ultimately, of course, the effort fails. Cruise must remain himself: the sole face that adorns the posters. In this requirement, and this alone, The Last Samurai does not try to have things both ways. It requires everyone to defer to Cruise’s character, sooner or later–which is part of the reason The Last Samurai will rake in a lot more money than Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, without having a tenth of the integrity of Dead Man‘s cross-cultural encounter.
As compromises go, this one isn’t fatal. I was impressed by The Last Samurai. I was entertained. But except for the ever-compelling drama of Tom Cruise’s overachievement, I can’t say I was moved.
To my surprise, though, I recently saw a martial spectacle that did move me: the last installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King.
The experience came as a surprise because the first episodes had felt like such a slog: so many lavish sets and special effects, so much high-flown doubletalk, so endless a supply of computer-enhanced battles, with nothing to interrupt these labors except the occasional exchange of yearning, sexless glances between Viggo Mortensen and this or that underemployed beauty. I showed up for The Return of the King out of a sense of duty–samurai warriors, please note–and left astonished, with my head and heart buzzing.
Of course the effect was achieved, in part, by beating me into submission. The challenge that director Peter Jackson has set for himself is to jump up perpetually in scale, after he’s already piled Annapurna on Everest. There are always mightier armies to amass, uglier monsters to call up, vaster tracts of land to threaten with destruction; and like the hero riding in at the last moment, Jackson somehow comes through with the goods. Movies don’t get any bigger than The Return of the King; you could tuck The Last Samurai into one corner and have room left over for Intolerance.
So I surrendered to a superior power, or perhaps superior exuberance. Jackson rejoices in making large chunks of masonry seem to whiz through the air with the camera zooming close behind; and when he invents his better stunts–such as a duel between a hobbit and a giant spider, or an elf’s flying attack against an elephant–you can almost hear his giggles, beneath the audience’s spontaneous applause. Ray Harryhausen himself might have envied these effects. For the movie-mad, such extravagances will always be their own excuse. And yet, having given in to them, I discovered something beyond extravagance in The Return of the King. I found a few human realities amid the blare and ballyhoo.
There’s a mad father, terrifying in his destructiveness; a woman warrior whose victory is worth the predictable swagger; a friend who might have turned out to be less admirable, if he’d had a bit more imagination; a hero who wins because of his humility and then can’t return to his humble life. I would distinguish these figures from others in the film that are well realized as types but have no weight as people: Ian McKellen’s wizard, for example, or Mortensen’s uncrowned king, who strides about looking like your generic movie Jesus, only more tired and pissed off. The latter characters are satisfying. The former trouble you enough that you can care about them.
Weary of manly honor and the noble lost cause, suspicious of the battle against absolute evil, you may excuse your movie-mad columnist for enjoying The Last Samurai and thrilling to The Return of the King and yet wonder if the current movie season has anything for you. Of course it does. Pop culture is nothing if not generous, and so it’s tossed up a pair of cynical, hipster comedies that deflate everything in the previous two movies. Let me recommend The Triplets of Belleville, a feature-length animation by Sylvain Chomet, and Bad Santa, a demented collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and Billy Bob Thornton.
I suppose the theme of The Triplets of Belleville is the absurdity of being Québécois. The film was made, for the most part, in Montreal and exists in an imaginative zone that is ridiculously and painfully neither Paris nor New York. But, that said, the major appeal of the picture is its sense of disgust. It’s about a dwarfish, goggle-eyed granny; a grotesquely fat dog; a bicycle racer with the eyes of Peter Lorre and a nose that belongs on a piece of construction equipment; three cabaret artistes who live amid garbage and play with garbage and gorge themselves on dynamited frogs; a bunch of boxlike gangsters; a red-nosed drug dealer (he pushes French wine); and a city of gluttons, where only the buildings are thin. Though inspired by the works of Jacques Tati, from whom it borrows the device of using gibble-gabble as dialogue, The Triplets of Belleville has none of his delight in human messiness. The chaos in this picture all but reeks from the screen. I thought it was hilarious.
But not as hilarious as Bad Santa, a comedy of disgust that is not so much beyond praise as indifferent to it, as it is to everything civil. The movie’s one joke–which will endure for the ages–is the defamation of the Christmas spirit by Billy Bob Thornton, who stars as a drunken, chain-smoking, dirty-minded, incontinent, foul-mouthed and larcenous department-store Santa. I strain to find precedents. W.C. Fields won’t do; although he celebrates the basest impulses, Fields continually musters pretenses, whereas Thornton is too abject to bother. Everyone sees he’s a scandal, but nobody seems able to do anything about it. Preston Sturges doesn’t qualify as a precedent, either–nobody in this picture has the vocabulary–and the Hellzapoppin’ tradition is positively genteel compared with this stuff. The closest source I can think of is the writings of Charles Bukowski: just what you want to see spewed across the screen at the holiday season.
Like The Return of the King, this film, too, features an elf. He’s played by Tony Cox, and he’s an angry, vicious, dozens-playing dwarf. Happy holidays!
Screening Schedule: And yet, since spiritual needs don’t just vanish, I also recommend The Hidden God, a series at The Museum of Modern Art’s Gramercy Theatre in New York. The theme: movies in which the unacknowledged main character is God. The schedule, running through February 29: nothing but classics, from Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis through Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day. If you can’t make it to the series, why not pick up the catalogue? It’s got fifty essays, including a very Jewish one about Andrei Rublev, by me.