Will Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai win the Best Picture or Best Actor Oscar? If so (after opening Friday, Dec. 5, at the Metro and other theaters), should it? Let's tackle the first question first. Given its marked family resemblance to Oscar winners Dances With Wolves, Braveheart, and Gladiator, you bet it could conceivably have its warrior way with the Academy. To add 20 pounds of muscle to his runty physique, Cruise hired the same trainer Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe used. No question about itthe star looks great and graceful as a U.S. Civil War hero turned 1870s Japanese samurai in the film's niftily choreographed battle scenes.
Movie pundit Jack Mathews' poll of Hollywood insiders predicts that Samurai's clang-of-the-sword, thud-of-the-beefcake glamour will hack past Master and Commander in the Best Picture voting and overpower the chick-flickier allure of Cruise's ex Nicole Kidman's rival Civil War story Cold Mountainonly to be snuffed by Mystic River or, likelier still, humbled by Hobbits. The Internet Movie Database people's poll also predicts an LOTR/Mystic showdown. Newsweek suggests that, thanks to Miramax's Oscar-marketing wizardry, Mountain is likely to challenge favorites LOTR and Mystic, leaving Cruise, Crowe, and Seabiscuit out of the money, because there's usually only room for one epic in the nominees' list.
I wouldn't be crestfallen if Cruise gets nominated for his yeoman acting efforts in Samurai, even though his early bitter- alcoholic scenes are a pale echo of his brilliant bad-guy work in Magnolia. He's done far more galvanic heroes before, and he's not good at making us believe he's from a previous century (see Far and Away). I do hope the film gets shut out for Best Picture. Let Gandalf's sword triumph over Cruise's, because the J.R.R. Tolkien moviesthe first two that I've seen, that isaccomplish what Samurai only attempts: an action picture with spiritual resonance and characters of fully human dimensions.
GRANTED, THIS FLICK largely satisfies on the action front. Cruise's character, Capt. Nathan Algren, starts out inert, a self-loathing war hero itching to be redeemed by authentic combatinstead of suckering rubes into buying Winchester rifles. Enter an old war buddy (nicely ornery Billy Connolly), who recruits Algren to train the nascent army of the emperor of Japan. The whiff of death brings the film and Algren to life. Forced to lead untrained peasant soldiers against extraordinarily trained samurai guerrillas, Algren wins glory in a spectacularly acrobatic sword fight, then gets taken prisoner and is transported to the gloriously gorgeous samurai-hideout hill town. There, he's swiftly converted to their cause and educated in philosophical martial arts. All the dancelike scuffles, chase-scene chopsocky, and climactic battles royal are inspiringly lovely, thanks to director Ed Zwick (Glory).
Alas, Zwick is also a dim-witted midget Zen master and a snoring bore ponderously obsessed with quotidian quiddities (thirtysomething, Once and Again). In a film lacking one moment of surprise, Samurai's unstated but evident subtext for Cruise is touting the powers of his own philosophy, Scientology. Hence, way too many pompously portentous scenes of action-free, faux-noble, spiritually pretentious myth mongering, which stop the movie dead. Despite an Oscar-worthy performance by Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto, the rebel samurai chief, his cross-cultural mind meld with Algren is alleged, not demonstrated. In a voice-over during his winter-long captivity in samuraiville, Algren murmurs, "I do know that here I have found untroubled sleep." I almost napped myself.
Seemingly in real time, the snows melt. Algren dons extremely cool samurai armormore colorful and less clunky than Europe's knights in shining armorand the rebels bravely ride off to certain death against the emperor's more numerous troops, now well trained in using Yankee weapons, like that cool proto-Uzi, the Gatling gun. Using tactics akin to Gibson's in Braveheart, Algren defies the inevitable victor's vast legions and fights to the last samurai.
I KNOW MOVIES aren't obligated to be historically correct, but Zwick and Cruise make such a big deal about authenticity and the wonderfulness of the samurai tradition that we're entitled to award some raspberries. Let's see: Samurai were fundamentalist zealots furious about American military hegemony and their country's modernizers, so they hid out in remote hill country, trained a terrorist army, and glorified suicidal war against their ruler and his Yankee infidel alliesall in order to uphold their allegedly ancient holy traditions. Gee, who does that sound like nowadays?
The movie tries to sell us on equating these rebels with the Indian insurgents once massacred by Algren's company. That's why Algren's a deracinated alkie: He's traumatized by flashbacks to the unjust slaughter he could not prevent; he can only win redemption by drying out, wising up Eastern mysticism-wise, siding with Katsumoto, and striking blows against the American empire. The emperor's troops are led by the same martinet bastard colonel (Tony Goldwyn) who ordered Algren's Indian butchery. (You can tell he's evil, because he's got a prissy U.S. Army-issue mini-goatee, versus Algren's massively blossoming, spiritually pure beardwhat was it about the Taliban and facial hair?)
The Japanese pop-culture myth of the samurai and the American myth of the West have cross-pollinated to marvelous effect from the 19th century to Kurosawa and beyond. Oscars or no Oscars, The Last Samurai won't even be remembered as a footnote to this tradition.