4 December 2003 | FilmLabRat
I was skeptical about this movie because not every high-budget feature with Tom Cruise is guaranteed depth or serious acclaim, although it may gather at the box office. And Warner Bros put me through TORTURE to see this pic - changes of times AND locations, over and over. I felt like was on an survival test, an unbearably annoying treasure hunt over weeks and was frankly ready to give it a negative review (which I'm writing on behalf of a publication). However, I found the movie truly and unequivocally remarkable and cannot contain my review in 350 words.
First, the experience was powerful. Edward Zwick was a masterful director. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. The action, sets, scenery and story - even the dialogue - were riveting. Clearly, a ton of historical and cultural research and care went into the script, sets, costumes, casting. They didn't just Hollywoodize Kurosowa's "Seven Samurai" as a Tom Cruise vehicle. Nor was it Dances with Wolves or Seven Years in Tibet, two PC-preaching pics of yesteryear. It was a lot more like Braveheart meets Seven Samurai with elements of inculturation a bit reminiscent of Wolves and Seven Years.
Rarely does a movie have excellent acting across the board, but all the Japanese actors were outstanding, and the Americans and Europeans were excellent ... Tom Cruise was at the top of his game. His Independence Day angst combined with his moral nobility in A Few Good Men and The Firm. Ken Watanabe as co-star exemplifying bravery, wisdom and nobility was outstanding.
In spite of this historical epic being "in vogue" at present, there were surprisingly few cliché story elements. Even the requisite (American-made movie) romance with Take (Koyuki in this role was wonderful) furthered the cross-cultural elements of the plot in such a way that neither culture was violated - and above all the `chemistry' was discreet in Japanese fashion, taking a necessary backseat without overshadowing the main story line, actually adding richness to the process of "going native" for Captain Algren (Cruise). The subplot went far beyond an added market draw. Very tasteful and artful scriptwriting, with many colorful, developing characters.
The thrust of the film was the Western-Japanese cultural divide, differing concepts of value and valor and the political issues surrounding Japan's efforts to "Westernize." [cross-cultural studies have become a cinematic trend: Lost in Translation, Beyond Borders, The Missing, Japanese Story, etc.] Where most of the other films fell short (and The Statement was an abomination], this film succeeded brilliantly. The differences between the two cultures were considered and portrayed without completely bashing one (except in the political arena, but even there, the Japanese seemed to be inviting their own downfall, in many ways). There was no simple scapegoat or cultural domination message. The American Civil War captain, Nathan Algren (Cruise) goes abroad as not only a war hero but also a cross-cultural and linguistic expert. Being in Japan, (at first as a mercenary hired to train Japanese in Western ways of war), he takes on the study of the people and their language. Although Algren's sometimes superhero abilities are a bit of a stretch at times, taking the native language seriously is unique in American filmmaking (and American culture, hence our lowly reputation when traveling). Usually the American walks into the foreign scene and the pic automatically shifts to all-English. I was truly grateful to find the dialog half in subtitles because half the characters were Japanese - and Algren was speaking with them. Secondly, this movie honors both cultures for their recognized strengths, even in their distinctiveness. For example, when the woman who is hosting Algren (in captivity) makes dinner, he helps her. "Japanese men don't do these things," she tells him. "But I'm not Japanese," he says (in Japanese). Algren is not ashamed to uphold his homeland customs (although this was 1876... pre-sensitive 90s man era, long before women's lib let alone men entering kitchens) when his own cultural customs or inclinations are ways of caring rather than domination. Another and more important example: Algren demonstrates American resilience and perseverance when he rises again repeatedly after defeat. This baffles the Japanese who are accustomed to falling on their swords in shame after defeat, for them a noble death. In these and many other ways, the Japanese Samurai (especially Katsumoto, Watanabe's character) and Algren learn to appreciate each other's ways. In many respects, the film moves past the usual PC party line [of Dances with Wolves, Seven Years in Tibet and most others of similar ilk out of Hollywood] and reflects on the beauty and dignity in the midst of difference between the two worlds, and how much they need to learn from one another without money or domination as a motive. The dignity of the young Emperor Meiji finding his own cultural center, at the end, was especially moving. Overall, the film had depth and substance with brilliant work in almost every area of production and performance. The editing was marvelous - although it's long, there's no unnecessary material remaining. Not a moment of boredom. Props all around!