The Last Samurai
Starring:
Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn, Taka, Billy Connolly
Directed By :
Edward Zwick
Grade
A-

Synopsis: Cruise plays Civil War "hero" Captain Nathan Algren, who was renowned for learning some of the various Native American languages and cultures as he lived among them, and then using that information to help defeat opposing Indians during the war. As the movie opens, we find him playing the war hero and demonstrating firearms for a rifle company while he's actually an alcoholic, full of remorse for everything he's seen and done. His old Colonel (Goldwyn) tracks him down and gets him to hire on with a Japanese industrialist who wants to modernize/Westernize Japan. Emperor Meiji is very young, and has to make some important decisions about how much to let the West influence Japan; he's being torn between those like the industrialist Omura and those of the old Samurai class like Katsumoto (Watanabe) who want to slow the change the West would impose on the old ways of the East. Emperor Meiji is unwilling to make a decision, and so it has come down to armed conflict between modern soldiers funded by Omura and Samurai led by Katsumoto. Omura wants Algren to repeat what he did in the Civil War by learning about the Samurai and using that knowledge to better defeat them, while training Japanese in the use of American firearms.

***SPOILERS***
Little does Omura know that Algren will get a comprehensive education. Algren is forced to lead his men into battle before their training is complete and without complete equipment or intelligence. Of course, the battle goes poorly for them against the well-trained Samurai fighting on home turf. Algren is captured, but Katsumoto is impressed by his fighting spirit and lets him live, to learn about his new enemy. This sets the stage for the crux of the movie. Algren (West) learns from Katsumoto (East), and even vice versa, as they are trapped at Katsumoto's home in the mountains for the winter. By the time winter clears the passes the audience has learned a lot about Algren and Katsumoto, and about Samurai philosophy and culture. Algren has decided to make up for his sins with the Indians by fighting on the right side with the Samurai, helping them maintain their culture against the West sweeping in to exact change by force of arms. But can the Samurai resist a now well-trained and well-armed Westernized army and convince the Emperor to honor the old ways?

Who Will This Appeal To?: The action in this movie is great, but honestly it's more of a historical drama. Lovers of the latter will be more impressed than seekers of the former. Also bear in mind that it's Tom Cruise. Some love him, some hate him. I've heard that he ruined the movie for some people, I've heard others say they don't like him but this movie changed their opinion.

Evaluation: Historical epic. That's this movie to a tee. Helmed by Edward Zwick, of Glory fame (and man do you need to see that movie if you like historical epics.) This movie does a lot right. Superb acting. The acting fits the material, it's very subdued most of the time, except for a few dramatic moments, which is typical for the Japanese and is exemplified in the wonderful supporting cast. Cruise comes in as the loud, swaggering American in the beginning of the film, but moderates to a more understated passion befitting the Japanese by the end. The directing and cinematography are wonderful, perfectly simulating the beauty of Japan. They do however present the same problems as the script, which I'll get to later. The script moves at a good pace. This is a long movie, and the action is great but a little sparse. However I never got bored with all the drama, as frequently happens in long dramas. There's a lot of moments in the script that do an excellent job of revealing Japanese culture and philosophy, and by the end I think even the most uninitiated will have an appreciation for what Cruise's Algren is going through.

On the negative side: This movie does so much right it's easier to pick out the flaws. First off, it's adapted from a Japanese legend, it's not actually a true story. And there are some inaccuracies in its adaptation, such as the time period of the Samurai armor being a little off. Second, this is an American, Hollywood movie. If you want a "real" Samurai movie, watch a Japanese one. This film does a great job with all the trappings, incorporating a lot of Japanese language, culture, and philosophy, but ultimately its message is Hollywood-ized. ***START SPOILERS*** 'The Last Samurai' starts out as being Katsumoto, but ultimately is passed to Algren, a Westerner. All the Japanese Samurai who have trained their whole lives die, yet Algren survives. Where Katsumoto failed to convince Emperor Meiji, Algren uses Katsumoto's sacrifice to convince the Emperor. (Another historical inaccuracy…the Meiji era arguably saw more Westernization and change than any other era in Japanese history.) ***END SPOILERS*** These plot points are done convincingly enough in the movie, but the message is ultimately that Japan could not save itself, it required a Westerner to come in and show them the way. Like I said, this is done well enough within the film that it doesn't seem too obvious, but on reflection this is a very Hollywood movie, with some of the failings. Although, on the plus side, Zwick did an excellent job of handling the language barrier, as well as toning down displays of affection and keeping other Japanese values intact.

Final Verdict: For historical drama, Braveheart is still the reigning king. You want historical battlefield action? For my money, The Messenger is the best after Braveheart. But The Last Samurai is definitely at the top of this genre, falling in somewhere next to The Patriot. It's an excellent and moving film, and everyone should give it a chance.

It's All in the Details: Tony Goldwyn plays Colonel Bagley, representing the mindless military might that has led this country into its most grievous errors. He's made a bit of a career out of playing 'the dick', and man do you want to see him dead by the end of this movie. He's done a lot of TV work, but some may still remember him from his first big role in Ghost, others may be surprised to find out he was the voice of Disney's Tarzan in the film, video sequels, and the game Kingdom Hearts.

- - Jeff Light

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