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'Emperor' is a royal pain

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Postwar Japan. Tokyo in ruins. U.S. soldiers arriving to take charge.

“Let's show them some good old-fashioned American swagger,” barks Douglas MacArthur, the five-star general in command of rebuilding the nation he has just destroyed, as he and his officers make their way from the air base to their new headquarters. Tommy Lee Jones, in baggy Army browns, puffing on an extra-long corncob pipe, does his best to approximate the storied military man.

In “Emperor,” MacArthur and his officers must bring the Japanese leaders to justice — and decide whether Emperor Hirohito, their godlike leader, should be put on trial as a war criminal. If he is, it could start a revolt against the occupying force. If the United States lets Hirohito go, there could be political ramifications back home.

It's a moral conundrum, but it's only part of the story in director Peter Webber's (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”) rather stiff and unsatisfying history lesson of a movie. Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), one of MacArthur's most-trusted aides, had fallen in love with a Japanese exchange student before the war, and now, here in Tokyo, he is obsessed with finding her — to the point of clouding his judgment, and the decision he has been tasked with: determining Hirohito's fate.

Filled with dreamy flashbacks of the budding romance between Bonner and Aya (Eriko Hatsune) — the college dance, the walks in a bamboo grove, meeting her parents in a house in Japan's countryside — and with jeep rides across the A-bombed wasteland of a city where 100,000 citizens were killed, “Emperor” offers an uneasy mix of schmaltz, angst, horror and intrigue. It doesn't help that at the center of all this is Fox (this is Fellers' story, not MacArthur's). Fox is an actor of limited range and depth. A thin, schematic screenplay gives him even less to work with.

Steven Rea write about movies for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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