If you go only by the previews, "The Last Samurai" looks like yet another
over-budget Hollywood epic, attempting major block-buster status, like
last year's "Gangs of New York" tried (and failed) to be. But, to my surprise,
Samurai is remarkably good, despite itself.
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One reason is the performance of Tom Cruise, whose early career
showed exceeding promise as a rising star, but later films had him as
the action hero, where his main appeal was his physical attraction and
high tech special effects. "Acting", beyond a minimum required amount
of plausibility, was not really as necessary for him to be a box-office
draw. Yet, in Samurai, his performance is not only fine-tuned as an
actor, but you can see how emotionally engaged and committed he is,
as the real-life person, to his character's role and the spirit of the story.
Here, Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a well-decorated captain in the Civil
War, known for his ability to train troops for combat. In the years since
the war, he has had time to reflect back upon the onslaughts upon the
American Indians, conceding to the futility and inhumanity of war. He's
lost his soul, but lacking anything else to replace it, but guilt and
whiskey, he agrees to take on another assignment: train Japan's first
modern army of the 1870's to fight the Samurai, who are presented as
analogous to the savage American Indian.
During the first battle with the Samurai, the new army is sent in too
soon, and the ill-equipped and poorly trained platoon is defeated. Algren
is captured and taken to a mountainous retreat, where the Samurai leader,
Katsumoto, gets to know his new enemy. As the two men, both defeated
in spirit, learn about the other, a new relationship grows, spawning a
new strength to fight for the meaning of life they truly believe in.
As history shows, when old world meet new world, victory goes to the
technically superior, usually at the expense of culture, honor and
The movie works at most every level: the script is cognizant of the
potential for sappiness, so the dialog between people are thoughtful
and purposeful. The depths of the characters are punctuated by actors'
performances, although this was mostly the luxury of the main characters.
Violence is mostly implicit, and all within the context of the story and
scene development, and is necessary to evoke the appropriate sense of
drama and horrific nature of war. The violence is nothing we haven't seen
before, and those squeamish about such things would not find the battle
scenes exploitative. The film's two hour and twenty minute length
is padded, but the extremely gorgeous photography and realistic sets
and portrayals of mid-19th century Japan make it all quite worthwhile.
Last, and most importantly, the plot, theme and moral of the story are
all tastefully told.
My critiques of "The Last Samurai" are broad, but not to be overlooked.
Minor characters are two-dimensional, though their effects are minimized by
their lack of overall importance. Still, it's easy to leverage sympathy
for getting back at a simpleton villain; an unnecessary tactic for a good
film. Little "cutsie" scenes to show humanity and childlike fragility
are peppered at just the right places to garner a laugh, but again,
a tad cheap for a film of this magnitude. Also, the slow evolution of
trust between Algren and the Samurai villagers was good, but jumped too
abruptly at some stages, giving an odd sense of you being "moved along".
Perhaps a more gradual transition would have generated more appreciation
for just how hard it is for enemies to eventually embrace one another.
The Last Samurai is definitely worth seeing, despite all of my criticisms,
although I wouldn't vote for it at the Oscars. This has been a good year for
the top films, and this one is definitely up there. Had it been a slower
year, I'd be looking for the statue.
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