Nobody does hardass better than Tommy Lee Jones. Nobody. So casting Jones as Douglas MacArthur, the general assigned to help rebuild Japan after World War II and bring Emperor Hirohito (Takata rô Kataoka) to trial for war crimes, is just plain inspired. But then director Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring), working from a stiff of a script by Vera Blasi and David Klass, goes and ruins it by focusing attention on the wrong guy. By that I mean Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), the general assigned by MacArthur to interview Hirohito’s Cabinet members, or at least those who haven’t been driven by honor to suicide, to decide if the emperor ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor and deserves to hang.
Now that’s a movie I’d like to see. Emperor prefers to dawdle over Fellers’ romance with Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), the Japanese girl he fell in love with at college before the war. The effort to put a personal face on the major issue of occupation is as timely as Iraq and Afghanistan, but the execution is clumsy and cliché-ridden. Only near the end, when MacArthur and Hirohito meet in person, do we get fireworks. And that’s thanks to Jones, who makes sure this old soldier will never die in our memory. As for this tepid movie, it just fades away.