There are several interesting elements tucked away inside "Emperor." Most prominently, there is America’s post-WWII occupation of Japan, which involved investigating the role of the country’s emperor in Pearl Harbor and determining his future. There is also the presence of General Douglas MacArthur, played with showy bravado by recent Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones. These are potent, dynamic stories and characters that could make for a fascinating film.
Unfortunately, director Peter Webber’s war drama doesn't have much interest in these elements. Instead, "Emperor" hitches its wagon to Matthew Fox from "Lost" and his bland historical romance. Sure, the drama of holding the fate of a country’s leader (and an entire country for that matter) plays a role in "Emperor," but it feels shockingly slight considering how much time we spend with Fox’s droopy love story.
Fox plays Bonner Fellers, a U.S. General heading off to post-WWII Japan. The country is reeling from the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now America – led by General MacArthur – is coming in to rebuild, as well as to investigate whether Emperor Hirohito deserves blame and punishment for his role in Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the fighting in the Pacific.
MacArthur selects Fellers to lead the investigation, mainly because of his knowledge and understanding of Japan, its people and its culture. The young military man has his hands full, however, with another, more personal goal: finding an old flame (Eriko Hatsune) from his college days who may have perished in the numerous bombing raids on the country.
You’d think the moral dilemma of determining whether or not a ruler deserves to hang would merit the most screen time, but apparently writers Vera Blasi and David Klass disagree. Audiences are instead treated to an extended look at Fellers’s relationship, ranging from their time at school to their courting in Japan to his desperate search for her current whereabouts.
True, the subplot does add to Fellers as a character, but it draws more of the film’s attention than the complex real-life wartime drama, and worst of all, it’s just not all that interesting. Their love story is a standard-issue romance – cue the happy couple running through a field, or bamboo forest in this case – with an equally dull actor in the lead. Fox may look the part of a square-jawed all-American soldier, but it’s not a particularly captivating performance.
It looks even more tepid next to Tommy Lee Jones’s lively portrayal of General MacArthur. When we first meet the legendary general, he’s landing in Japan, putting on a show of American swagger with his corncob pipe and boisterous demeanor. As "Emperor" goes on, we’re not even sure how much we can trust him, as his decision about the emperor may be just as motivated by his lofty political aspirations as Fellers’s final report.
It’s a complicated character (made even more entertaining by Jones’s typically grumpy snap) that makes you wonder why we couldn’t be following him instead of our milquetoast hero and his mopey romantic dramas, both past and present.
When "Emperor" decides to put the focus on the history rather than Fox’s love story, it struggles to bring it to life. Webber has a gorgeous eye – one shot of a house’s yellow windows against the purple sky at dusk is breathtaking – but when it comes to creating something equally compelling for the brain or heart, he has little inspiration.
The investigation is fairly dreary, moving with very little momentum or excitement. The long breaks for the romance don’t help, and neither do Fellers’s multiple voiceover monologues that excessively holds the audience's hand through the story without actually involving anyone in the process. An additional hint of drama comes in the form of a rival officer, but the subplot comes out of nowhere and goes just as far.
During one early meeting with a Japanese government official, Fox declares, "I don't need a history lesson." Thanks to its lifeless and distracted storytelling, that’s unfortunately all "Emperor" can really provide.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published May 26, 2015
The origins of the Spare Change Trio probably sound like something you've heard a variation of before. What you may not have heard before in the Milwaukee music scene, however, is something quite like the Spare Change Trio's sound - a mix of jam-happy reggae roots rock with a dash of something from Down Under: a didgeridoo.
Published May 25, 2015
Comedy sequels typically serve as an invitation for disappointment. There are a few exceptions (see: the meta mayhem of last summer's "22 Jump Street"), and thankfully the minorly flawed but majorly funny "Pitch Perfect 2" slides in amongst them.
Published May 25, 2015
The Blake Lively romantic drama "The Age of Adaline" feels like a fairy tale - an incredibly pretty one at that - but told like a lab report.
Published May 14, 2015
The new Sundance-approved Jack Black high school reunion comedy "The D Train" is a darkly oddball mix of laughs and drama simultaneously amusing and cringe-inducingly awkward. So ... pretty much just like my high school days all over again.
Published May 14, 2015
Located in Hales Corners, the W. Ben Hunt Cabin is much more than simply an old rustic locale. It's a lived-in museum to an era long gone, as well as a tribute to an incredible man who predicted the future, turned his hobby into history and did his best to keep some of our nation's earliest traditions from disappearing and merely collecting dust in the past.
Published May 11, 2015
Monday evening, Ald. Tony Zielinski held a community meeting in order to address the recent rumors and speculation concerning the potential sale of At Random - in addition to five other buildings held by the same owner - and to take community input concerning the neighborhood bar.
Published May 10, 2015
"Hot Pursuit" isn't a particularly strong film, and admittedly there's not much of a rousing defense to be made for it (get that pull quote ready for the ad campaign!). But there is one element - and a fairly significant one at that - in the movie's corner: Reese Witherspoon. I will go to bat for her delightfully bright eyed performance here, one that serves as just enough of a sparkplug to almost single-handedly get this tired comedic vehicle where it's going.
Published May 6, 2015
2003's "Big Fish" is a sweet and delightful - and not just because it's one of the few times this side of the millennium you could honestly say, "I enjoyed a Tim Burton movie." Now First Stage will attempt to bring Burton's signature oddball visuals and "Big Fish" author Daniel Wallace's imagination-rich book to live, musical life on stage. In charge is director Jeff Whiting, who chatted with us about bringing tall tales - and taller giants - to life.
Published May 5, 2015
With new headliner and schedule announcements popping up seemingly everyday, the sunny sonic spectacle that is the Big Gig is finally beginning to take shape. But while most of the work takes place in closed-door meetings and over negotiation-heavy phone calls, a part of the Summerfest process has also been taking place on a stage right out in the open, featuring local bands hoping to win in front of a crowd of fans hoping to be won over.
Published May 1, 2015
It's easy to forget that, before it became the franchise model for everything, "The Avengers" didn't sound like a great idea.Yet Marvel and Joss Whedon took a pile of potential excess and smoothly honed it into a burst of pop entertainment. And amazingly, they've managed to make it all work yet again with "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," assembling a ton of moving parts into another thoroughly fun - if not quite as effortlessly harmonious - blockbuster.