Nothing about The Last Samurai, however, rings as false as Tom Cruise, who reportedly spent eight months researching and training for this part, and who gives a performance that, unfortunately, feels as though it were eight months in the making. Cruise can wield a sword with the best of them, and he's impressive on horseback too. But is there any other bona fide superstar onscreen today so apt to confuse tense with intense? With Cruise, this wasn't always the case; when he was younger, he sparked with promise, giving strong character performances in both Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. Watching those performances, you felt that Cruise had something to prove to himself, to the world. Then the actor hit it even bigger and developed a degree of creative control over his movies that few actors ever achieve (and that most would do well to avoid) in which he seemed terminally outside the character, never letting us too close, always keeping one eye cast on maintaining his hard-earned celebrity. In effect, Cruise stopped being an actor and took up the full-time job of being Tom Cruise. (This is true of nearly every recent Cruise picture with the exception of Magnolia, where he was deftly cast as someone whose whole life is a put-on.)
Having noted all of the above, however, I must also note that The Last Samurai, which was shot on locations in Japan, New Zealand and California, is a film of awesome scope, and that many of its epic affectations are legitimately earned. Enormous attention has been paid to the finest details of set and costume design. In cinematographer John Toll's eye-pleasing wide-screen compositions, every blade of grass seems to have been positioned for maximum effect. (It may, in fact, be the most extraordinary grass captured on film since The Thin Red Line, which Toll also shot.) Then, when the film reaches its climactic battle sequence, the computer technology that has created entire digital armies for the Lord of the Rings movies is used ever so sparingly—for the most part, we're seeing real men in real armor on real horseback—and the result is thrilling. It's clear that Zwick grew up watching and loving the films of Akira Kurosawa and David Lean and that he's trying to uphold a certain tradition of epic-scale filmmaking. It's unfortunate that the Lean and Kurosawa films he seems to be channeling here are the late-period ones in which both directors' indulgences of pictorial grandeur had come to take precedence over human drama. The Last Samuraiis Zwick's Kagemusha, his Ryan's Daughter. Still, there are stretches in which it's possible to sit back and let The Last Samurai wash over us, in the way that we might take pleasure in a prefab Oriental antique that we know is phony. But then we snap out of the trance and find ourselves craving something more.
The Last Samurai was directed by Edward Zwick; written by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick; produced by Zwick, Herskovitz, Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Scott Kroopf and Tom Engleman; and Stars Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe and Billy Connolly. Now playing countywide.