The Last Samurai (2003)


Ebert:1/2 San Francisco Examiner: TV Guide:

Warning, minor plot points revealed!

There are two versions of the film Blade Runner.  One with a cheesy stupid voice over by Harrison Ford's character Decker and the director's cut which mercifully mutes the embarrassing ill-conceived narration.  The latter, although nearly identical to the former in every other way, is a far superior film.  The narration and "Americanized" conclusion of The Last Samurai unfortunately drags the entire work down a bit but from such a lofty height that it makes what should have been a masterpiece merely an outstanding film.  

Once again I am pained to report that Ebert and I agree entirely in our opinions and critique.  Perhaps his "jerk" period has ended and he has come to appreciate movies again.  Or perhaps he has just handed off the duty of being "Alan's Movie Review Nemesis" to Entertainment Weekly reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum who I now hate more than anyone else on Earth.  Lisa is the current bane of my existence and her "Things I Hate" article will be composed shortly.  Besides the favorable review and corroboration of the weak tacked on ending assessment, Ebert also pre-emptively derides fellow reviewers who are too quick to dismiss the film merely because it's star is Hollywood Royal Tom Cruise.  

Lets just stipulate to the fact that Tom Cruise is an arrogant big deal Hollywood Superstar.  This doesn't bother me.  Honestly, I like Tom Cruise movies, always have - always will.  He might be an ass in real life but I'm not friends with him so I don't care.  Just like Bruce Willis.  I'm sure we wouldn't be good pals but I'll go see just about any movie he decides to make.  Tom Cruise obviously studied and trained really hard for this film and it comes through in the performance.  He did a great job so just deal with it Cruise-haters.  

The next group that needs to be put in their place are Kurosawa fans.  A movie like The Last Samurai will undoubtedly be viewed using Kurosawa's body of work (Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Rashomon, Sanjuro, etc.) as a standard and measure.  The director of this film, Edward Zwick (Glory), has obviously studied Kurosawa and many of the battle scenes were very reminiscent of the Kurosawa Masterwork Ran.  Set apart from the story, the Samurai elements of the film are absolutely perfect and I challenge anyone to say otherwise.   Zwick has not tried to make a "Kurosawa" film so purists should not take offense and ultimately The Last Samurai follows the Zwick formula much closer than any of the work of Kurosawa.

The story deals with a Civil War hero named Nathan Algren (Cruise) who is hired by the Japanese government to train it's troops for the warfare of the new century.  To accomplish this transition to a more modern military system the old Samurai warrior class must be crushed and destroyed.  Algren is brought in because of his experience in slaughtering Native American rebellions during and after the war.  He is told that the Samurai represent Japan's version of the Native Americans and are engaged in a rebellion that must be put down in the name of modernity and progress.  Algren and his insufficiently trained troops are defeated during their first skirmish and he is captured by the Samurai General Katsumoto and taken as a prisoner.  During his time with Katsumoto, Algren comes to a deeper understanding and eventually joins the Samurai in their battle for the honor and ideals of an age that is unfortunately at it's end.

The cinematography of this film is fabulous.  Like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy it was filmed in New Zealand.  The final battle is grand in scale and appears to be nearly 100% live action (like Ran) as opposed to the CGI wizardry of Helms Deep.  The first battle, where Algren is defeated and captured, takes place in a wooded area and was filmed like many of the battles in the, also excellent,  Zwick film Glory.  The costume design for the Samurai is the coolest I have ever seen.  I would love to have the Samurai armor that Cruise, Watanabe or Sanada wear at the end of the film.  

There are a few problems with the movie.  The previously discussed stupid narration (especially at the end), an impossibly ridiculous forbidden love, and the fact that the film should have ended on the battlefield make it a less than perfect movie but it more than compensates in other areas.  The film also follows the Dances With Wolves story pretty closely but I like that movie as well so I don't have a problem with that. 

Coming as it does at the end of the year, and being the epic that it is, The Last Samurai may be nominated for a few Oscars.  Except for perhaps costuming, I don't think it really merits a win in any category.  Tom does a great job but this is not the role he'll win with.  The Last Samurai is not a perfection but it is a masterfully made action drama.  I loved it.