The Last Samurai (2003) / War-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence
Running Time: 144 min.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Koyuki, Tony Goldwyn, Shin Koyamada, Aoi Minata, Scichinosuke Nakamura, Timothy Spall, Hiroyuki Sanada, Billy Connolly
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenplay: John Logan, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Review published December 9, 2003
Director and co-writer Edward Zwick (About Last Night, Courage Under Fire) returns back to the thematic territory of his most acclaimed film, Glory, with another rousing adventure full of stirring drama and stunning battle sequences. It's reminiscent of several other acclaimed films, especially Dances with Wolves and Braveheart, full of scenes of a noble but downtrodden people fighting to preserve their sacred ways of life. Even with the similarities, The Last Samurai succeeds because, with the exception of an overcooked ending, Zwick manages to pull the right strings in the right places, with a measured efficiency that only comes with a knowledge of precisely how to make an epic war film.
Samurai starts off in 1876, with Cruise playing a popular Civil War hero, Nathan Algren (Cruise, Minority Report), troubled by his years of service in following orders he did not believe in, including the slaughter of innocent Native American women and children, all in the name of his country. He uses alcohol to try to numb some of the pain away, lots of it, sleepwalking through the day while not being able to sleep at night. A Japanese delegation of politicians arrives to make Algren a generous offer, involving the training of the Emperor's soldiers in the use of firearms. It seems they are ill prepared to take on the rebel Samurai faction, led by the fierce warrior Katsumoto (Watanabe, Batman Begins), whose families have trained for thousands of years in the ways of the sword. The money proves hard to refuse, and Nathan goes to Japan, only to be captured by the enemy when taking an inexperienced group of men prematurely to battle. Now a "prisoner" to Katsumoto, he finds himself among brave warriors again, falling in love with a code of living that exemplifies his own beliefs.
The Last Samurai is not a perfect film, as Zwick occasionally overplays his hand with moments that go for too much emotion, when more realism would have delivered just fine. However, when it is good, it is very, very good, crafting a truly engaging war drama of epic proportions, with the kind of scope and vision that can only come from the hands of master craftsmen.
Zwick isn't alone in this effort. The gorgeous score hammers home the emotional scenes, and there are few better to do this than composer Hans Zimmer, who has crafted the music behind other large epics and war films such as Gladiator, Pearl Harbor, The Lion King, and Black Hawk Down, to name a few. Of course, what would an epic adventure be without great cinematography to go with it, and John Toll would be a good choice, as he has shot similar vehicles like Braveheart, Legends of the Fall, and The Thin Red Line.
Somehow Tom Cruise's performance gets dwarfed amid all of the other finer qualities, and while some may scoff at the notion of Cruise brandishing a sword and fighting like a samurai, he does a commendable job in making every aspect of his character wholly believable. Cruise is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast, with especially memorable work by Ken Watanabe, playing the wisest and most formidable samurai of them all, Katsumoto.
By the end of the film, The Last Samurai scores more than enough points in storytelling to overcome the misguided, seemingly multiple final bows. Perhaps it's an example of trying to force a sense of profundity and significance to all that we have witnessed before, when all the while, the story already had all of the profundity and significance you could want in a movie of this magnitude. While The Last Samurai does fall short of being an epic masterpiece, there are enough truly great moments for it to achieve the rating of "excellent," and become a respectable contender for Best Picture of 2003, come Oscar time.
©2014 Vince Leo