Film Reviews

THE LAST SAMURAI

By • Dec 5th, 2003 •

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Warner Bros. Pictures / A Radar Pictures / Bedford Falls Co. / Cruise-Wagner production
Running time — 154 minutes / MPAA rating: R

Tom and Julia, the Vatican has not beatified you yet. It’s time to get to work and start acting.

We are introduced to Tom Cruise’s Capt. Nathan Algren staring dramatically into the void. He is drunk. A famed Indian fighter and Civil War hero, Algren is now performing at state fairs retelling his exploits as well as hawking Winchester rifles. He goes directly off the stage to a meeting whereby he is offered a king’s ransom to go to Japan and teach foot soldiers to fight Western style.

Sure, he might have a few nagging regrets about the reality of modern warfare, but the Japanese are offering a bundle of cash and they meet all his demands.

Apparently, Algren is deeply troubled over his participation in an Indian massacre where women and children were slaughtered under the command of angry Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn). Now, Algren’s adoring fellow commander, Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly), and Bagley want him to go to Japan to help the young emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) modernize his army. The emperor is also fighting a samurai rebellion.

Before Algren can organize a decent army of soldiers using modern weapons, he is ordered to lead the ill-prepared recruits in a forest battle against a rebel band of samurai warriors led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Algren fights heroically and kills Katsumoto’s brother-in-law. He is taken prisoner to Katsumoto’s son’s mountain village. It’s lovely. It’s peaceful.

While it is a place for Algren’s soul-searching and healing, the samurai practice fighting and farming.
Incredibly (and rather sadistically), Katsumoto has his grieving, newly widowed sister, Taka (Koyuki), nurse and house Algren. Yes, Algren killed Taka’s husband, but it was an honorable match. He spends the winter with them, learning the ways of the samurai, charming Taka and her children, conversing with Katsumoto who wants a buddy to practice his English with, and finally, saving Katsumoto’s life in a ninja attack. Thrown into all this is an English photographer, Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), who, along with everyone else in this film, gazes at Cruise in transfixed awe.

This is where director Edward Zwick stumbles. Staging movie star idolatry might enhance Zwick’s career, but it does not serve this story. Heavy-handed star direction obscures the impressively staged battle scenes. I know Cruise is the biggest movie star in the world and respect is rightly due him in his real life, but here he is playing a boozed-up soldier and a prisoner, not a deity.

After joining Katsumoto in combat, the conflict between the two men vanishes. They become friends fighting an ancient culture that wants to move forward and advance. Algren and Katsumoto go to Tokyo to meet with the emperor who is under the sway of a savvy businessman, Omura (Masato Harada). Omura intends to profit by taking Japan from a feudal kingdom to a modern nation. Placed under arrest, Katsumoto is rescued by samurai led by Algren.

Cruise admirably defers to Watanabe’s Katsumoto who has the appropriate demeanor of an honorable leader. Then comes his final scene, which, of course, no actor could play and not look silly. But Watanabe tries.

The searing, brilliantly executed battle culminates as only a Hollywood production can. Written by John Logan, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz, the film’s denouement left me confused. Since I know everyone hates “spoilers,” I will only comment that the finale left me shaking my head. I know the star cannot die in battle, but didn’t his side lose? What was he doing meeting with the emperor in his Civil War uniform?

Hans Zimmer’s score, while lush and demonstrative, recalled the epic score from OUT OF AFRICA.


Credits:
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriters: John Logan, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Story: John Logan
Producers: Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Scott Kroopf, Tom Engelman
Executive producers: Ted Field, Richard Solomon, Vincent Ward, Charles Mulvehill
Director of photography: John Toll
Production designer: Lilly Kilvert
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Ngila Dickson
Editors: Steven Rosenblum, Victor du Bois

Cast:
Nathan Algren: Tom Cruise
Katsumoto: Ken Watanabe
Simon Graham: Timothy Spall
Zebulon Gant: Billy Connolly
Col. Bagley: Tony Goldwyn
Ujio: Hiroyuki Sanada
Taka: Koyuki
Omura: Masato Harada
Nobutada: Shin Koyamada
Silent Samurai: Seizo Fukumoto

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