Speaker by Various Artists

Tom goes bush(ido)

by Mark Broatch

Tom Cruise! In a dress! Ok, it's a man's kimono, strictly speaking, but Tom cast the aspersion first, and he's got a very big sword.

Captain Nathan Algren is a washed-up, pissed-up gun for hire ridiculing himself before 1870s circus crowds now that the Civil War is over. He's paid a pittance to drunkenly regale them with tales of bravery, and butchery, his spiel enlivened by little models of battlefields being hand-cranked by dirty-faced kids in the background.

When this debasement of a decorated soldier gets all a little much and Pissed-Old Pete starts popping off a few shots around the place, along comes the hand of kind(-ish) fate. Algren is offered a job in Japan teaching the natives how to use "modern weapons" -- viz guns. Too soon into the training he's told to prepare these green troops for an attack on a group of samurai renegades. They fail, do the Japanese version of turning tail, and Algren is captured.

Cue matte screens looming over a hill village set, in large part, in Taranaki. Cue Algren being initially sceptical of these primitives but quickly appreciating their skills. Cue the tough, stubborn Algren being tipped repeatedly on his arse by superior swordsmen. Cue him "feeling the Force", "being the blade" and "letting go".

He's here because he's been spared by the village's imperious leader, Katsumoto, flawlessly played by well-known Japanese actor Ken Watanabe. The actor is a tall man with a splendid gravitas and regal bearing (many boxes must have been in order), who lets Algren know exactly when their "conversations" are at an end - Katsumoto turns with a curt parting word, a blanking of the face and a swish of the robe.

A word about the clothes. As with the Lord of the Rings triple-bill, Aucklander Ngila Dickson designed the fabulous kit, all muted earthy tones, and if she has any material left over she has my email.

Last Samurai is most watchable during the fierce and spectacular fighting and training scenes, but it drags like a lame dog when there's no battle going on (that is, during what seem to be misty corporate videos in which Algren explains in another needless voiceover how weird and wonderful Samurai culture - and its bushido code of honour and justice - are, or when he's wooing the widow of a samurai he killed a little earlier).

Bushido is more fuel to Algren fascination for - and admiration of - so-called primitive cultures, dying cultures, such as those hundreds of American Indians he has been paid to kill, probably just a little earlier.

(Ah, and those Naki exteriors brought back pleasant memories of when I lived there for a year as a student. The undulating paddocks of the mountain, where the Japanese village sits and the big stand-up battle is waged. The dead flat playing field at Pukekura Park doubling for a marshalling ground; New Plymouth touched up in the background as Tokyo never looked so, er, provincial. But no sign of that cute marching girl.)

Director Edward Zwick (The Siege, Legends of the Fall) is by his own account a fan of Akira Kurosawa, who created several classics around the mid-century that eulogised the skill and virtue of the samurai, particularly those pivotal years when the popularisation of the gun destroyed their raison d'etre. Zwick has used modern film making methods and technology to great effect in The Last Samurai's battles, but he is pretty much at sea when trying to explain the mind of this warrior class. Though perhaps co-writer John Logan (Star Trek: Nemesis,Gladiator) is also to blame for making Algren's narration all zeal rather than zen.

Timothy Spall adopts a ridiculously pompous colonial whine as a local diplomat, and doesn't seem to be enjoying himself very much. Contrast him with Billy Connolly's Zebulon Gant, an old comrade of Algren. Connolly, chewing through some kind of Irish accent, has a lightness and energy that hugely enliven the few scenes he's in.

Cruise himself is, I have to say, actually kind of good. He handles the language about as well as you'd expect a 19th century Yankee to, and his encounters with the widow Taka (ex-model Koyuki) are at least subtle if not the required tender. His fighting is superb, and a few moments of fraternal grief are not completely bone-headed.

For my money, about the only moments he's been watchable in are the passable Jerry Maguire, "You had me at hello ..." and for an against-type treat in the sprawling masterpiece of Magnolia. Here's another. Perhaps our diminutive Scientologist leading man has rechecked the expiring date of the action hero, or perhaps simply age is improving Cruise. Cool.

Then there's always Cabin Fever, the latest knowing addition to the horror-splatter section of the DVD shop. Eli Roth, of Toxic Avenger IV, er, fame, wrote and directed this homage to the joys of contracting flesh-eating diseases. Paul and Karen are a college grad couple (though I wish they'd kept their real names, Rider Strong and Jordan Ladd), Marcy and Jeff are another pretty pair, and Bert's the morally unconflicted, beer-guzzling bogan. They're heading off to a remote cabin, naturally, to celebrate their apparent fooling of academic invigilators: there's some flesh (in both senses) but not a lot of intelligence on show. An encounter in the woods with a bloodied fellow -- who they are not very friendly towards, it has to be said -- can lead only one way.

At least with good-looking nobodies such as Rider and Jordan, you can't have any illusion about what you're getting yourself in to. Especially not after the film opens with Se7en-ish titles and touches of Blair Witch -- polarised skies, dark woods -- and other horror tropes, such as roads not on the map, random acts, improbable encounters and the like.

Clearly Roth is having fun with the genre, which has never shied away from mocking itself or offering blatant sign-posts and vigorous nods to the audience, even as it adheres to its broader rules. Killing off American college kids seems to be a national cinematic sport (Queer Eye snaps to horror directors everywhere), as is making fun of hillbillies, monosyllabic stoners and other simpletons. Some touches, like the party-boy cop, are a hoot, as much as the vain babe's shaving the sores on her legs is a stomach-turner. Cabin Fever's unashamedly a B-movie with a better budget, and any resemblance to 28 Days Later is just that: a resemblance. Horror fans should watch it with a slab or two of that fine American Bastard Ale.