Zen Palette

How The East Was Won: Tom Cruise leads the charge in The Last Samurai.Photo: Warner Bros.

The Last Samurai, like this season’s other epic, Master and Commander, is a big, old-fashioned romance about honor and warfare and duty—with a healthy dose of Zen. Tom Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a Civil War hero whose subsequent participation in the military campaigns against the Indians has left him racked with nightmares and remorse. An alcoholic shill for the Winchester rifle company, he is brought to Japan by a former commanding officer he despises, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), at the behest of advisers to the weak-willed emperor. After 200 years of self-imposed isolation, Japan is ready to open up to the West (and its profitable trade agreements and firearms). Algren is hired to train a conscript army to suppress the samurai, whose fealty to the emperor threatens the “modernization.” Once again, he finds himself having to wipe out tribal rebels, only this time he comes to realize his spiritual affinity with them. Captured by the forces of the legendary Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, whose hawklike presence is more than a match for Cruise), he adopts the Bushido code—the way of the warrior—and ends up fighting on the side of the samurai.

Algren is discovering within himself his finest possibilities after a long bout of self-loathing. He shapes up, stops drinking, becomes a master swordsman, and receives Yoda-like wisdom from Katsumoto. (Sample dialogue: “Let the strength of the samurai be with you always.”) Tom Cruise has never demonstrated remarkable emotional depth—he’s so ferociously present as a performer that even his reflective moments can seem showy. It is to his credit here that he often succeeds in giving Algren an inner life that is not simply a scaled-down version of his outer one. We don’t register Algren’s need for redemption as simply a plot device. He looks genuinely stricken by his past—so much so that it wasn’t really necessary for the director, Edward Zwick, to periodically insert flashbacks to Algren’s Indian horrors. Zwick, who also directed the powerfully intelligent Civil War drama Glory, is better when he’s working without a highlighter. He stages a couple of battle sequences—especially the climactic one, in which Katsumoto’s warriors, with their swords and bows and arrows, stand hopelessly outnumbered by the emperor’s soldiers, with their rifles and Gatling guns—that have a Shakespearean vigor. Zwick’s model for these war scenes is clearly such Kurosawa movies as Seven Samurai and his Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood, and the action is good enough that we don’t chortle at the comparison. With his co-screenwriters, John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz, Zwick’s longtime collaborator, he keeps us continually aware that, win or lose, the samurai now belong to an era that is quickly, tragically fading.

But in attempting to fully render the tragedy, the filmmakers indulge in some rather frayed dramatic conventions. To provide a contrast to the grand optimism that supposedly preceded it, Reconstruction America is depicted as a time of disillusion and self-aggrandizement—which pretty much sums up any American era. The encroachment of Western values into Japan is seen as all bad; its purveyors are mercenaries and weaklings. Compared with the soulful Katsumoto and his other warriors, the sniveling teen emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), his businessman adviser Omura (Masato Harada), and Colonel Bagley are all one-dimensional. Algren is heard saying that there is much about the Japanese he will never understand, and yet what we are presented with is an explicable enigma: The warrior code is a rigorous philosophy of life, and its adherents are depicted as philosopher-kings. There’s a sentimentalism at work here that could fit right into the counterculture seventies—it’s hippie Zen. But surely what must have unsettled principled warriors like Katsumoto and Algren is the recognition that, at bottom, they possessed a dark attraction for blood. We don’t really see this, perhaps because Zwick imagines himself as a samurai, too. He exalts the nobility of these men—and of the entire samurai clan—at the expense of a more uncomfortable psychological reality. These men may fight like beasts, but the beast within remains tethered.

The film’s reverence extends even to the domestic scenes. When Algren is first captured and brought to a remote village that resembles an embattled Shangri-la, he is tended to by Katsumoto’s beautiful, sad-eyed sister, Taka (Koyuki), whose husband the American has just killed in battle. She must keep her temper, but how believable is it that her young sons would express no rage? The Last Samurai is an idyll in which the savageries of existence are transcended by spiritual devotion. That’s a beautiful dream, and it gives the film a deep pleasingness, but the fullness of life and its blackest ambiguities are sacrificed.

Bad Santa is my kind of Christmas movie—profane, subversive, and swarming with scuzzballs. Billy Bob Thornton plays boozehound safecracker Willie T. Stokes, who teams each Christmas with three-foot-tall Marcus (Tony Cox), the brains of the outfit, as Santa and Elf. Thus disguised, they proceed after-hours to loot the department store where they are currently employed and then live off the swag for a year. (Marcus is small enough to maneuver through the stores’s air ducts and dismantle any security system.) The scam is remarkably plausible—I won’t be surprised if we are soon reading about copycat crimes.

Terry Zwigoff, who directed from a script by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is best known for Ghost World and the documentary Crumb, and so it’s not surprising that Bad Santa has some of the ripe grunginess of a good underground comic. My Treacle Alert did start beeping when Willie ended up hiding out with a tubby, friendless 8-year-old (Brett Kelly) in the Phoenix mansion he shares with his zonked-out grandmother (Cloris Leachman). But not to worry—tastelessness reigns. Thornton has found the perfect vehicle for his peculiar gifts—his stubbly lewdness shines—and the rest of the cast, which includes Bernie Mac as a mall detective, the late John Ritter as a store manager, and Lauren Tom as Marcus’s squawk-box wife, is equally inspired. There’s even a groupie, wonderfully played by Lauren Graham, who has a thing for guys dressed up as Santa. And a very merry fetish to you, too.

Zen Palette