Cruise brings charisma, honor to complex portrayal in 'Last Samurai'
By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service
|THE LAST SAMURAI (R) Four Stars (Excellent)
The concept of a personal, deeply meaningful sense of honor is at the heart of this grand epic that combines romance and intelligence to tell its tale of a changing world. Tom Cruise stars at his forceful, charismatic best for Edward Zwick. Ken Watanabe co-stars. Warner Bros., 54 minutes.
Yet the concept of a personal, deeply meaningful sense of honor is at the heart of "The Last Samurai," a grand epic that combines romance and intelligence to tell its tale of a changing world.
Tom Cruise stars at his forceful, charismatic best while director Edward Zwick contributes the sort of sensitivity and power he brought to "Glory," his other fine film about honor on the battlefield.
Cruise is Nathan Algren, a Union officer much admired for his actions in the Civil War. But his later participation in the bloody slaughter of American Indians in the West of the 1870s has left him disillusioned and bitter. As the film opens, he's a soulless, hard-drinking cynic, reduced to demonstrating firearms at county fairs.
Though he doesn't know it at the time, salvation comes in the form of an invitation to train Japanese soldiers. Western ways are influencing the Japanese crown, the country's businesses and its military. Algren has been hired to train soldiers in the use of firearms and other aspects of modern warfare. They're preparing to squelch the last defiant strains of the samurai, the age-old warrior class of Japan.
The samurai choose to fight with the sword and live by a strict code of honor, known as the Bushido, the way of the warrior. The last samurai are led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a dedicated man who pledges his warriors to the defense of the emperor and the nation.
The emperor, though, has come under the influence of those desiring Western ways and a Western-styled military in Japan. The samurai are to be discarded violently if necessary.
When Algren is captured by the samurai, Katsumoto sees much to admire beneath the American's caustic exterior. After a winter and spring in the samurai camp, Algren gradually learns great respect for the samurai and the code of honor. When the powerful Japanese military which he trained come to exterminate the samurai, Algren must make a choice.
Zwick directs with an epic vision, no doubt learned in screening rooms from masters David Lean and Akira Kurosawa; and, like them, he embraces opportunities for moments of quiet beauty and lyricism. The battle scenes are majestic, bloody, adrenaline pumping and emotional, because they're fueled by the feelings we have for the central characters.
Credit Cruise and Watanabe, who create complex 19th century warriors of wildly different backgrounds. Cruise offers a moving emotional arc as he finds a personal form of salvation.
It's his best work since "Born on the Fourth of July." Interestingly, that's another film about a warrior's struggle for decency and honor.
Rated R, with strong battlefield violence.
BURBANK, Calif. "Welcome," Tom Cruise beckons, his arms spread wide and his smile spread wider. "Welcome to beautiful 19th-century Tokyo."
Of course, Cruise isn't in the 19th century, or Tokyo, or Japan, for that matter. He is standing in the nearly abandoned back lots of Warner Bros. studios, where parts of his new movie, "The Last Samurai," were filmed.
The lot looks nothing like the backdrop for Cruise's first historical epic, which opens nationwide today after a "sneak-peek" run in 550 theaters Saturday. The cardboard shrines and phony village fronts were taken down months ago. The thousands of extras who populate the film have moved on. All Cruise has left from the elaborate sets are snapshots.
"Look at that!" he says, thumbing through each picture. " Doesn't that look real? I've made a lot of movies. It's still magic to me."
And back it comes, the favored weapon in his charm arsenal. The grin. The teeth. The slight cock of the head. He's got a few more wrinkles and lot more fame since he danced in his undies 20 years ago in "Risky Business," but that boyish awe remains etched in the 41-year-old actor's face.
Audiences love him
Much has changed since those days as a teen mag idol. He has two children and two ex-wives. He discovered the Church of Scientology and gave up Catholicism, much to the chagrin of his fans and the press.
But what hasn't changed is his appeal to audiences. Two decades and 24 films since his debut in "Endless Love," Cruise's movies are considered shoo-in hits before they are released. Since 1994, ticket sales for his movies "average" $302 million worldwide.
"People are drawn to him unlike any actor I've seen," says "Samurai" director Ed Zwick. "They feel like they've known him all their lives. They have a connection that goes deeper than with other actors."
If that's true, Cruise may have to draw upon that bond to boost "Samurai," which could prove his toughest test as a box-office draw. Running nearly 2-1/2 hours long and centered on feudal Japan's Meiji Restoration period, "Samurai" isn't exactly the popcorn fare that made Cruise Hollywood's most bankable leading man.
But that doesn't seem to worry Cruise, who is taking more roles that challenge Hollywood's assumptions about him.
"Vanilla Sky" withstood critical pans and mind-bending themes to take in $100.6 million primarily on Cruise's star power. In 2001's "Sky" and last year's "Minority Report," he played hard-to-love characters and gnarled his famous mug, daring audiences to find the ugly in him. They still came: "Report" captured $132 million in North America, driving ticket sales for his films well above $2 billion worldwide.
"He takes chances," Zwick says. "And audiences relate to that vulnerability."
Taking to the sword
In "Samurai," Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a Civil War veteran who finds himself drawn to the samurai code of conduct. Cruise, who is ambidextrous, trained for nine months to learn how to fight with two swords and performs all his own stunts.
At times, Zwick wondered if the realism was too much. "Here I have Tom face-down in the mud, getting the crap kicked out of him," he says. "Or we're swinging aluminum swords past his face at extraordinary speed. And I'm thinking, they're going to be mad if I get Tom Cruise's head cut off."
It almost happened. In one scene, Cruise was in a duel aboard a mechanical horse with co-star Hiroyuki Sanada. But the machine failed to whisk Cruise out of slashing range at the crucial moment.
"I swung my sword at Tom's neck to behead him, and the horse didn't work," Sanada says. "I stopped the blade just one inch from his neck."
Cruise laughs about it now. "Well, we wanted it to be authentic."
On this night, Cruise is playing another role: master of ceremonies for a screening of "Samurai" for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, England's equivalent of the Academy Award voters.
Outside the screening, he cautions, "Be careful, a car's coming." He steps onto a curb as a sedan, apparently lost, creeps through the lot. Cruise shouts a greeting to the couple in the car and points out the theater where his movie is playing. They thank him and roll away, dazed by the celebrity status of their parking lot attendant.
The scene captures Cruise's reputation in Hollywood: friendly, obliging, but still somehow distanced.
He is as well-liked as any star in the industry, counting among his closest friends directors Steven Spielberg and Cameron Crowe. He is unwaveringly polite, professional and punctual: Cruise showed up five minutes early for his interview. When his visitor apologized for making him wait, Cruise was quick with a reply: "Don't worry about it. Better I wait than you."
A private kind of guy
Yet that warmth belies a fiercely private side, even among friends. He is deft at deflecting questions that strike too close to his personal life. And as he strolls through the darkened studio lot, his voice takes on an edge when he recalls tabloid reports about his two children, his divorce from Nicole Kidman and his relationship with Penelope Cruz.
"They'll say, 'The friend said this, the friend said that,' " he says. "But I don't discuss those things with my friends. I don't discuss that with anybody."
Cruise quickly catches himself, and the edge disappears from his tone.
"That little annoyance is nothing," he says. "It's nothing compared to the joy I get from my kids, my family, the work. I have the greatest job in the world."
Cruise has been unwittingly preparing for his latest job since he was 7 years old, when he stretched out on the hood of his father's station wagon and watched "Lawrence of Arabia" at a New Jersey drive-in.
"I thought to myself, 'Was there really a place like this? Was there really a time like this?' " Cruise says. "I didn't understand all of the movie, but I remember being awed by another culture."
More important, he says, "Samurai" is a throwback, an old-fashioned film that reflects values missing from many modern movies.
"There are things in this movie that, as a man, I believe in," he says. "There are things I wanted to be part of and put on screen: honor, loyalty, integrity, compassion."
If that sounds Boy Scout-ish, Cruise would likely be the first to recite the motto. His nice-guy image does more than secure a $25 million-a-film paycheck. It helps lure other stars into a movie. Cruise's clean-cut reputation attracted some of Japan's biggest actors to "Samurai," including Ken Watanabe.
"Tom made it easy," Watanabe says. "He came to those early rehearsals in jeans and a T-shirt and helped set the tone for a very open, relaxed setting. It's not often in Japanese films that I could help develop the character in that kind of atmosphere."
For Cruise, acting has always been more than a creative outlet. Since he began performing in high school plays in Glen Ridge, N.J., Cruise saw acting as an escape from a hard-knocks childhood. His parents divorced when he was a toddler. Living with his mother and three sisters, the family faced poverty and joblessness and moved 15 times before he turned 18.
"I used to think when I was a kid that someday when I grew up, I'd have no problems," he says. "Back then I just wanted out, to travel and have an adventure and find out what I should do with my life."
He found it in 1987 in the Church of Scientology.
It is impossible to understand Cruise without understanding his devotion to Scientology, the group founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard that espouses self-styled scientific methods to cure ailments of the body and mind.
Cruise credits Scientology with helping him find his emotional "center" in the midst of his burgeoning fame. He routinely quotes Hubbard and cites him as "one of the greatest humanitarians we've ever had." He credits Hubbard's "study technology" for curing his dyslexia and has donated significant time and money to the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project, a group that uses Hubbard's study techniques to offer free tutoring to children and adults.
And he bristles at media portrayals of Scientology as coercive or cult-like.
"People who question it just don't know about it," he says. "As a result of ignorance, you have bigotry."
A producer, too
Cruise has discovered a way to combat what he feels are slights by the press. He became a movie producer, with more than a dozen credits, including "Samurai," "Narc" and "The Others" starring Kidman.
But he seems especially proud of one film.
"Did you see the movie I produced? 'Shattered Glass'?" he says, referring to this year's film about journalist Stephen Glass, who fabricated dozens of stories before getting caught. "You gotta look at that. Why do you think I'm so interested in producing that film?"
Again, the easy smile. He credits religious faith for helping him handle fame, but says nothing brings more balance to his life than daughter Isabella, 10, and son Connor, 8. He shares custody with Kidman.
He may have a $120 million film to market, and another film in the wings in "Collateral," a Michael Mann thriller. But the actor says he takes his true direction from son and daughter.
"We just watched 'Finding Nemo' and 'Brother Bear,' " he says. "Those are my weekends. They help me focus on everything that's good. And they help me realize how much good there is in my life."
Scott Bowles, USA Today