The writer of Ecclesiastes was right. There is nothing new under the sun.
Tom Cruise has made a career out of playing, basically, the same person over and over again. His characters are generally men with hints of greatness, but having tragic flaws. They are haunted by their past. There was Pete Mitchell of “Top Gun,” living with the ghost of his father riding in the cockpit. Cole Trickle of “Days of Thunder” flashed to a wreck that seemingly kept him out of the winner’s circle. Last year’s wonderful “Minority Report” had Cruise playing John Anderton, a detective whose memory of his murdered son runs like a tape loop in his mind.
Cruise’s current movie is the beautifully photographed “The Last Samurai,” in which he plays Captain Nathan Algren, a hero of the Civil War and the Indian wars. Algren served with Custer and is haunted by what is now known as post-traumatic stress, as images of his participation in the slaughter of Indian women and children grip his mind.
As the movie opens, we find him in San Francisco, doing promotional work for Winchester Arms. He is seated in a backroom, while a representative of the company speaks glowingly of his gallantry. The juxtaposition of the words and the scene of Algren drinking to excess tells us that this is a troubled man.
But Algren is offered an opportunity to go to Japan and train the emperor’s army. He is to be paid well to teach men to use firearms to fight the Samurai. The Samurai are led by Katsumoto—a member of the Japanese council and the emperor’s former teacher. Katsumoto now leads a rebellion to resist a Westernized Japan.
Algren is recruited by Omura, one of the emperor’s advisers, because Omura sees Katsumoto as a hindrance to Japan becoming a world power.
Algren begins training the army, but discovers that these men are nothing more than peasants with new rifles. His study of the Samurai reveals that they do not use firearms and still use centuries-old methods of warfare. An early fight, before the army is ready, brings defeat for the army—and Algren’s capture.
While in the captivity of the Samurai, Algren finds something he has not known: peace. He learns their ways and discovers in them a serenity that he lacks in his world. All of this is played out in the beauty that is Japan. It is a visual delight to behold.
All of this sounds good. So why be so negative? Because Cruise has done this before. It is becoming almost clichéd to see him in a role of this type. The elements that make this a standard-issue Tom Cruise movie are here. Besides those already mentioned, we’re treated to the typical “Tom Cruise has physical prowess” scene. In the final analysis, Cruise needs to find an atypical Tom Cruise movie.
“The Last Samurai” looks to be a mixture of “Top Gun,” “Minority Report” and a non-Tom Cruise movie, “Braveheart.” It has a great story, but one that is overshadowed by its star. A smaller movie (because this is close to two and half hours), without some of the patented Cruise scenery and storytelling, would have been much better.
Tom Cruise makes great movies with directors that understand him. As mentioned, last year’s “Minority Report” was one of the best pictures of the year. Steven Spielberg directed that movie and his hand was seen guiding the film out of some of the Tom Cruise gimmicks. Edward Zwick made this movie, but does not have the hand to direct Cruise out of his clichés. If you like Tom Cruise, then you will love this movie. But if you don’t, then don’t waste your time.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and battle sequences
Director: Edward Zwick
Writers: John Logan, Marshall Herskovits & Edward Zwick
Cast: Nathan Algren: Tom Cruise; Katsumoto: Ken Watanabe; Sgt. Zebulah Grant: Billy Connolly; Col. Benjamin Bagly: Tony Goldwyn; Taka: Koyuki; Nobutada: Shin Koyamada; Magojiro: Aoi Minata; Simon Graham: Timothy Spall.
Visit the movie’s official Web site.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.