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'Emperor' review: Bad history lesson

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Gen. Douglas MacArthur

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Isao Natsuyagi as Teizaburo Sekiya in Peter Webber's "Emperor," in theaters on March 8, 2013. Credit: Fellers Film

Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas MacArthur? It's a pretty good idea. The actor's world-weary eyes, barking voice and deadpan humor seem perfect for the role of a hard-charging, charismatic egotist like MacArthur. You'd pay to see that movie, right?

Save your money, because "Emperor" is not that movie. Jones indeed plays MacArthur, as the posters promise, but he's strolling through a secondary role that adds up to perhaps 15 minutes of footage. The star of "Emperor" is actually Matthew Fox, of ABC's "Lost." As bait-and-switches go, this one feels almost legally actionable.

There's something unjust about the screenplay, too, but more on that later. Fox plays Bonner Fellers, a real-life Army general who assisted MacArthur during America's occupation of postwar Japan. His job: Figure out what to do with Emperor Hirohito, considered by the Japanese to be a living god. America wants Hirohito for a scapegoat, but Fellers worries that a trial might cause an open revolt.

This potentially interesting dilemma becomes thoroughly dull in the hands of director Peter Webber ("Hannibal Rising"), who stages endless conversations about political fine points without giving us much to look at. Our star, Fox, seems to be acting internally (to put it kindly), but the blame also goes to mind-numbing lines like this: "We need to focus on the steppingstone meetings that led to war!" No actor alive could make that sing.

Screenwriters David Klass and Vera Blasi try to juice things up by inventing a 1930s romance between Fellers and a Japanese woman, Aya (an enchanting Eriko Hatsune). This might have surprised Dorothy Fellers, the man's wife since 1925, were she alive, as might the closing-credits implication that the "affair" led to the general's demotion. A combination of boring facts and dumb fictions, "Emperor" is one history lesson you don't need.

PLOT An American general holds the fate of postwar Japan in his hands.

RATING PG-13 (adult themes)

CAST Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune

LENGTH 1:46.

BOTTOM LINE All talk, no action, not enough Jones and way too much Fox make for one dull history lesson.

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