The Last Samurai

| December 7, 2003

From the preview, I figured that since Tom Cruise was starring in a movie called The Last Samurai, it was a pretty good guess that he was going to be the last one standing. It was just a matter of seeing how we were going to get there. Maybe it should have been named Dances with Swords since it was going to be a Japanese version of the Kevin Costner movie Dances with Wolves. Like that story of a Civil War soldier whose soul is redeemed by an enemy, the road towards a better life was one well worth traveling, though this time it takes place in Feudal Japan.
Cruise is Captain Nathan Algren, a Civil War veteran 11-years removed who has figured out that the only thing he was ever really good at was soldiering. But in 1876, there wasn’t a lot of need for organized military killing within the borders of the United States so he became part of a traveling sales show for Winchester rifles. The twin facts that he was so good at killing and his shame for some of the things he did while wearing the uniform of his country have conspired to leave him looking for the escape that alcohol can bring. He has become a tiger with no more battles to fight.
Just as Algren reaches bottom, two former soldiers – his friend Sergeant Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly from Timeline, Boondock Saints) and his hated commander Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn from Ghost, Bounce) – come calling with the proposition of training the Japanese Emperor’s troops to quell a rebellion of renegade Samurai. At 5 times his Winchester salary and the chance to once again become a soldier, Algren takes the job.
Things are not always what they seem and Algren finds himself fighting for an army whose leaders do not have the best interests of the men or even the country as a priority. The actual fight is not so much between the Emperor and someone who wants to replace him but two rival factions within the government. One wants Japan to join the Western world, and the other wants to keep respect for the old ways. Atherton is captured (luckily it seems) by his enemies and begins a journey of discovery that has him not only changing sides in the struggle, but freeing himself from demons that have haunted him since the Civil War in his own country.
There are many story lines that combine to bring us a movie that should be nominated for Best Picture. The main one is the struggle between the Samurai and the Emperor’s soldiers. Within the Samurai, there is the relationship between Atherton and the Samurai leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) and his sister. There is the assimilation of Atherton into the Samurai way of life – both the people and the culture.
The scope of the story, the photography, the acting, the music are all top level. This is the type of story that people want to see when they spend there money to sit in the dark. Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire) has created a primer for other directors on how to entertain an audience.
The fight scenes are violent but not overdone. They are detailed without going on too long. There are two that are especially thrilling. First is a nighttime attack on the Samurai by a group of ninja sent by the Emperor.
The choreography is wonderful. The second takes place in Tokyo when Algren is attacked by a group of thugs. We see him preemptively attack the bad guys and when the fight is over, there is actually a slow-motion replay that changes our point of view and brings us into his mind. Cruise did a tremendous job learning to use the swords.
The movie takes place over a period of several months, but we witness that time passage very smoothly.
The Japanese backdrop within Tokyo and the highlands are beautifully filmed (or created digitally). The weak minded characters are not cartoonishly stupid or one-dimensional. The good guys are not without flaws or the ability to grow. And the ending is not completely obvious, though it can not be considered happy.
Though I think this movie will be nominated for best picture, I am not sure there will be a best actor nod for Cruise – the best actor in this movie is Watanabe, a well-known Japanese actor. His story of a Samurai dedicated to the young Emperor is truly gut-wrenching. OK, so he knows the culture better than Cruise, but nonetheless, it is a tremendous performance.
At 2 ½ hours, I didn’t feel the length was detrimental. The pacing is just right, taking a clue from the patience that the Samurai employ in their ways. I don’t get to say this often enough but you should go see this Oscar worthy movie in a theater. It is well worth the time and money spent.

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