I don’t really like Tom Cruise. I don’t know when this irrational reaction started, but when I get such strong reactions, they tend to stick, no matter what sort of evidence is presented to the contrary. I don’t know if it was the smile, or the nose, or his haircuts, or his films (e.g. Top Gun, Cocktail, Days of Thunder, Far and Away) that seemed to exist just to deeply irritate me.
This knee-jerk response has been shaken by Cruise’s recent film output. He got John Woo to direct Mission Impossible 2 (which wasn’t a great film, but it looks lovely); he amazed me in Magnolia (a film that is an extreme effort to get through, even if it is supposedly that good); he let Cameron Crowe do his thing in Jerry Maguire (although it didn’t quite work for Vanilla Sky – I saw the opening five minutes, thought, ‘This must all be a dream, then,’ learnt over the ensuing two hours that I was, in fact, correct, and felt completely cheated at shelling out money for it, which is not a good response, I have to say); and Minority Report seemed to hide the innate Cruise mannerisms that tend to grate on me so much, to the extent that I enjoyed the film, even though he was in it. What was my dislike supposed to do under such onslaught?
Then he goes and does The Last Samurai. I was nervous; would he overpower an epic story set in late 19th century Japan about the loss the noble samurai warriors? The answer is no, and the film is a wonderful piece of cinema. I do love of the samurai concept, which should be taken into account, but the story is not just about the samurai, but of a Westerner discovering them for the first time and realising his connection to this ancient code of the warrior.
The drama moves from small scale on the human level to the large scale of historical changes to an entire nation with ease and fluidity, and we feel for Cruise’s character, a former soldier in the American Cavalry, disgusted with the American destruction of the Native Americans during the Indian Wars. Plaudits must also be given to Ken Watanabe, who plays the samurai lord who captures Cruise, only to discover the warrior within. He is noble yet warm, strong yet sensitive without appearing effete, and has a dynamic screen presence.
The fight scenes, the hook for many people to come watch this film in the first place, are spectacular, from the attack on the settlement by ninjas, to the massive final battle between the remaining samurai and the newly organised, westernised Japanese army. The speed, grace and lethality of the samurai are captured perfectly, while the hugeness of the final battlefield doesn’t overwhelm the drama and the people. A marvellous film that deserves the respect of the term ‘epic’.