The Last Samurai Review

by Jon Popick (jpopick AT sick-boy DOT com)
December 5th, 2003

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Anyone tired of seeing Tom Cruise play the same goddamn role over and over again will want to skip The Last Samurai, where the actor is cast in the familiar-as-the-back-of-your-hand part of a rude, cocky, self-centered, petulant, successful jerk who is forced to re-examine his life when something surprising happens (like having his face destroyed in a car crash, being accused of a murder he's yet to commit, or getting fired from his job for speaking his mind). Is it wrong to mistake this, along with Eminem's 8 Mile performance among many others, for acting? See, this is why Cruise was so entertaining in Magnolia - he was spoofing himself.

In Samurai, Cruise's path to redemption kicks off in the late 1870s, where his Nathan Algren, a heroic Civil War captain, is shown drunkenly promoting rifles for Winchester before a frightened crowd of San Franciscans. Nathan has frittered away his last penny, which makes it pretty easy for him to accept a lucrative offer presented by his former sergeant (Billy Connolly, White Oleander). The job will take Nathan to Japan, where he and smarmy colonel Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn, Abandon) will help to train a national army so the young, clueless Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura) can quell a samurai uprising that has been preventing the construction of a railroad system.

After a brief setup, Nathan is ordered to take his ill-prepared troops into battle, even though they can barely load their weapons, let alone fire them. Nathan ends up being captured, but thanks to his pluckiness and the general goodwill of the samurai people, he's taken back to their village. He's mended by the wife of a samurai he killed in battle and taken under the wing of the tribe's English-speaking leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Since it's winter and the mountains have become impassable, Nathan is stuck there, like Bob Harris.

There's much more to the story than meets the eye, or than is revealed in Samurai's trailer, though those points are hammered home with little subtlety. There's the age-old battle between ancient beliefs and full-on modernization (the emperor's troops using Howitzers to attack the samurai and their slightly less powerful katana swords). There's also the culture shock Nathan experiences, but this is way more formulaic and way less tasteful than Lost in Translation. And there's the whole student-becomes-teacher aspect when Nathan (a/k/a Neo) slowly begins to learn the way of the samurai from the very Morpheus-ish Katsumoto (including, most importantly, the ability to kick a lot of ass in battle).
You also have the side-swapping of other films set in the same period, like Glory (which was made by the same creative team as Samurai) and Dances with Wolves. And, of course, there's the bullshit romance between Nathan and Taka (Koyuki), even though he killed her husband. I can picture her thought process (since Taka doesn't have many lines): "You killed my husband, ruined the lives of my children, and threatened to lead my people and their beloved, ancient ways of life into extinction, but since you rank pretty high on the list in the Entertainment Weekly Power Issue, I guess I'll spread 'em anyway."

So basically there's a lot of stuff you've seen a hundred times in other movies, and it's all fronted by a guy who has played this exact same role in a bunch of other films. But that's not all, kids. After three big set-piece battles (which you could set your watch to - they're exactly 35 minutes apart), the big bloodbath finale may as well be called Braveheart 2: Electric Boogaloo. They even hired the same damn cinematographer (John Toll). That's not to say the finale isn't exciting, though it will likely keep you from noticing the unexplained change in narration from Nathan to a British envoy played by Timothy Spall (Nicholas Nickleby).

Samurai isn't bad - it's exactly what you think it will be. And therein lies the problem.

2:24 - R for strong violence and battle sequences

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