Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Before I actually talk about the film, I need to say a couple of things about the way it and other films of its type come to be. These days, when people talk (usually complainingly) about "big studio films" what they really mean are films that are packaged by agents as vehicles for certain talent. The studios pay less of a part in the process than at any time in the past, as the power of the most popular actors is greater now than at any time in the past.
So, as a consequence of a culture that exists to serve the most powerful actors, a large percentage of studio films are simply vehicles to showcase certain actors in safe and predictable ways: In short, they are vanity productions.
Thus we have the career of Tom Cruise. I tend to avoid his movies, as I always feel like I'm contributing to the Scientology 700 Club or something by patronizing them. But lots of people do go to his movies, and he rewards them by supplying safe, predictable product whose primary goal is to safeguard the image of Tom Cruise, Inc. These are the rules, after all.
So the challenge of filmmakers who are entrusted with creating a Tom Cruise vanity production is: How do you make such a movie interesting? How can you be innovative while using a cookie cutter?
Amazingly, the makers of The Last Samurai pull it off. While I still can't take Cruise seriously in anything--for example, a large part of the visual contrast between Cruise's character and the Japanese around him is lost because Cruise is so short that most of the Japanese are actually taller than him--I still found myself tremendously entertained by this film.
How do Edward Zwick and the other filmmakers do it? First, they go with superb, cheese-free costuming and set decoration. Next, they shamelessly quote a variety of Kurosawa films, especially in several driving-rain-on-command scenes right out of The Seven Samurai. And, best of all, they create tremendous action sequences which--in a shocking violation of Standard Vanity Production Rules--do not flinch at all from even the most extreme violence. Though Cruise's smarmy, immensely self-satisfied performance at the heart of the film prevents it from being the triumph it could have been with someone else in the role, The Last Samurai is still involving, even rousing, and I would never have guessed.