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Dan Heller's Movie Review of Last Samurai


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Tom Cruise (3)
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Link To Movies/film-ratings.html Link To Movies/film-ratings.html 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.

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.

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John Koyama
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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.

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Shin Koyamada
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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 integrity.

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.
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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
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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.

You can find this movie on the internet database here: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0325710/

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