It’s always a challenge to bring a story in which not much “happens” (especially one that reads more like a history lesson than a Hollywood narrative) to the big screen and entertain the masses, but it’s been done many times in the past and recently in “Lincoln” with great success. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those times.
Krasnoff Foster Productions
“Emperor,” based on real events during the end of World War II, takes place in Japan amid the physical rubble and emotional wreckage brought upon by the atomic bomb. The narrative follows General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox, “Alex Cross”) who has only 10 days to investigate imperial, political and military officials and determine whether Emperor Hirohito should hang, guilty of war crimes, or remain in his ruling position as the United States steps in to rebuild Japan.
As Fellers searches for the truth about the Emperor’s involvement and intentions, he quests for his former college flame, Aya (Eriko Hatsune, “Girls for Keeps”), a Japanese woman whom he fears perished during the bombing. Tommy Lee Jones (“Lincoln”) plays General Douglas MacArthur, Fellers’s superior, the man who has entrusted him with the monumental task.
Director Peter Webber (“Hannibal Rising”) crafts a viewing experience akin to walking into a beautifully decorated restaurant with elegant music, only to be met with mediocre service and a strictly average meal. Maybe it’s just the whole poignant-historical-film-set-in-a-foreign-country quality, but the meticulous art direction (Jill Cormack, “Avatar”) heightens the authenticity of this period piece and, along with powerful and timely scoring (Alex Heffes, “Love and Honor”), production has set the stage for an aesthetically stimulating journey, but one that ends as soon as it begins.
Fox, in his first true leading role on the big screen, resembles more of a robot with an emotional on-and-off switch than a man. His character marches around, vacillating between angry and stone-faced and nostalgic and teary-eyed, a combination that confuses more than it convinces. But it’s not his fault — the film is written that way.
Jones shines as a grouchy, yet surreptitiously tender general as he fast-talks circles of crudities and orders around his men, a familiar and favorite role. This much needed comic relief, and Jones’s performance in general (pun intended), garners far too little screen time. But, again, it’s not his fault — it’s written that way.
Writers Vera Blasi (“Tortilla Soup”) and David Klass (“Walking Tall”), who adapted the screenplay from the book, “His Majesty’s Salvation by Shiro Okamoto,” not only fail to capitalize on their resources, such as a snarky Jones and a “Fox” of a leading man, but the story stews like a promising batch of meat and potatoes that never reaches boil, and it makes for a bland main course. As Fellers meets with affiliate after affiliate, it’s hard to keep the affiliates straight, especially with flashbacks of his relationship with Aya dangling in between.
While it “coulda been a contender,” the seriously sloppy adaptation (one that misses the bull’s eye by a mile) leaves “Emperor” as an inarguably average illustration of enduring love, loss and compassion during times of war.