Rating: 2 stars out of 5
When a movie needs a badass, they usually call Tommy Lee Jones. Whether to look for fugitives in warehouses, farmhouses, henhouses, outhouses and doghouses; getting would-be superheroes into shape; killing rogue aliens; or playing a firebrand radical — Jones is your man.
The Harvard-educated, Oscar-winning actor is known for his obstinate and sometimes cantakerous performances; and in a movie like the historically-inspired ‘Emperor’ which calls for someone to play Allied Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur, Jones fits the bill.
Directed by Peter Webber, ‘Emperor’ details the uncertainty of Emperor Hirohito’s fate after World War II, which rests in the hands of General Douglas MacArthur (Jones) and General Bonner Fellers, played by Matthew Fox.
Pressured by Washington and an infuriated American public looking for heads to roll, the pair must investigate Hirohito’s responsibility in starting the war and decide whether he is to hang or go free. The fate of a volatile Japan fiercely loyal to its Emperor hangs delicately in the balance.
If this was a movie about General MacArthur, ‘Emperor’ would have been an excellent film as Jones is stellar in his portrayal of the Allied Supreme Commander, supplying compassion and even bits of humour in the scenes he’s in. Looking every bit like a general in his khakis, aviator sunnies and smoking pipe, Jones perfectly captures the distinctive American swagger with equal parts subtlety and bombast he brought to films like ‘No Country For Old Men’ and ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’. But alas, it is not about MacArthur but Fox’s Brigadier General Fellers.
As the main protagonist in ‘Emperor’, Fox phones in a rather insipid performance; unassuming and at times muted . For a movie that focuses on Fellers’ exploits as the lead investogator in uncovering the truth, Fox fails to carry his weight and consequently fails to carry the movie forward – when the end credits roll, we were left wondering who the heck Fellers was.
There’s even a love story arc between Fellers and a Japanese schoolteacher Aya (Eriko Hatsune) that gets thrown into the mix. Instead of evoking emotion, the love story angle appears rather half-baked as it amounted to nothing more than two people looking longingly at each other.
As for the rest of the movie, ‘Emperor’ starts off promisingly as a neo-noir detective flick with Fellers playing gumshoe, chasing down suspects among the Japanese political and military hierachy. As we get to understand the Emperor’s complex role in the war, the movie takes a sharp left turn and turns into a political drama — abandoning all the simmering suspense that was build up from the start. Not to mention the distracting love story on the side — further confounding the viewer.
Webber’s detailed depictions of the place and time are spot-on. The investigations and interrogations play well, and do a fine job of explaining the stakes and the murky evidence. But what he struggled with is to find a balance to make the story cogent for the viewer — is it a love story? A political drama?
Webber makes it a point to emphasise that Emperor Hirohito’s guilt in the war is not black and white but gray. However, the movie fails to further explore that ambiguity. Instead, the filmmakers chose to narrow their focus on a story that pays little respect to the history books. Artistic license doth an entertaining film make, but even then the film’s storytelling does not pass muster.