'Emperor' review: Tommy Lee Jones shines in WWII mystery

Tommy Lee Jones as General MacArthur? Yes, please!

The Oscar-winning actor co-stars with Matthew Fox in the World War II drama “Emperor,” an interesting historical mystery that may otherwise fly under your radar.

In the days following Japan’s surrender and the end of WWII, General MacArthur (Jones) took command of the occupied country while Emperor Hirohito (Takatarô Kataoka) lived under house arrest. MacArthur, under pressure from the president, must decide whether or not Hirohito is to be executed as a war criminal. MacArthur’s fear of having the emperor hanged is that the stability of the country could collapse, creating an advantage for the communists to take control, something the Allies did not want to happen.

MacArthur recruits General Fellers (Fox) to investigate whether or not Emperor Hirohito was a peace-seeking figurehead or a military strategist who authorized the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fellers travels through the country unraveling secret memos and interrogating military prisoners.

Conflicting with his official investigation, though, is a personal investigation into the disappearance of Aya (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese woman he fell in love with before the war. Her town was bombed by the Allies during an air-raid and Fellers strays off his official path to find and rescue her.

The love story element pushes “Emperor” into traditional Hollywood territory, giving it a golden-age feel. However, the combination of the love story and the mystery don’t mesh well. Unfortunately, there’s rarely a subtle switch between the two plots. The Hirohito investigation stops, the love story begins. Rinse and repeat.

Jones is suitably great as MacArthur, a role he could play in his sleep and still be mesmerizing. He’s only in a handful of scenes, but when he’s present he is present. He roars in like an attack dog, barks his lines and marches off. Jones adds some necessary layers to the General's character. Is the General really a just leader? Is he corrupt? Or is he genuinely concerned for the well-being of Japan and its emperor. A scene between MacArthur and Hirohito, with hardly a word spoken, is really a wonderful moment that exemplifies Tommy Lee Jones’ great talent.

The entire film rests on Matthew Fox’s shoulders, and at times, it feels like he is being crushed by the emotional weight he needs to convey. This isn’t as noticeable when Fox is on his own, but pair him in a scene with the powerhouse Jones and you can see the stark contrast.

Fox is better during the investigation scenes. As he weeds through interrogations and cultural differences, he becomes more convinced that Hirohito isn’t to blame. Fox does a nice job with Feller fighting to be heard through all the bureaucratic entanglements. It’s the more emotional moments with Aya that become plodding.

Even though “Emperor” is a mystery of which we already know the ending, director Peter Webber (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”) keeps the story moving and interesting, especially with its beautiful photography. This also benefits from a being a WWII story not often told. World War II seemingly offers a never-ending amount of material, so to see this slice of intriguing history is most welcome.

MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.