The Last Samurai Review

by Bob Bloom (bobbloom AT iquest DOT net)
December 8th, 2003

THE LAST SAMURAI (2003) 3 stars out of 4. Starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada and Koyuki. Director of photography John Toll. Music by Hans Zimmer. Written by John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz & Edward Zwick. Directed by Zwick. Rated R. Running time: Approx: 140 mins.

Echoes from other films faintly resound throughout The Last Samurai: Shogun, Glory, Gladiator, Dances With Wolves.

They all make cameos in director Edward Zwick's latest feature, starring Tom Cruise as a disillusioned and guilt-ridden Indian fighting cavalry captain, a Civl War hero, who goes to Japan to teach Westernized warfare to the emperor's army.

Once there, circumstances force him to look deep within himself to find the man he once was.

Despite the familiar, almost formulaic storyline, The Last Samurai succeeds because of two actors: Cruise as Capt. Nathan Algren and Ken Watanabe as the Samurai general Katsumoto.

They first meet as adversaries on the battlefield. From there they begin a long journey on the road to understanding and honor.

Algren, who drowns his past in drink, cares nothing for the politics that has led to his assignment. He conveys the now-familiar cinematic Westernized disdain and arrogance toward Japan and its culture that dominated the early episodes of the epic miniseries Shogun.

And, like that story's John Blackthorne, Nathan Algren also slowly comes to appreciate and understand the beauty and philosophical foundation of the Japanese way of life.

His teacher is Katsumoto, who has after capturing Algren nurses him back to health in order to learn about his enemy.

Katsumoto fights to preserve tradition. With the construction of the railroad, the telegraph and other Western conveniences, he sees a profound threat to the codes and moral structures by which the Japanese have lived for hundreds of years.

Taken in by Katsumoto's sister-in-law and her family, Algren's wounds, both physical and mental, begin to heal. And through his many talks with Katsumoto, he learns why the Samurai oppose Japan's Westernization and what he and his followers hope to accomplish.

Cruise's acting abilities have often been overshadowed by his boyish good looks. In The Last Samurai, characters lines are in evidence, and it gives Cruise emotional weight, an added sense of maturity and strength.

His performance is fine-tuned as he meanders between charm, determination, despair, self-loathing and finally a rediscovery of the spirit.

He is matched by Watanabe whose manner exudes a quiet strength and wisdom. He has the skills of the warrior and the soul of a poet.
You will recognized many bits and pieces in The Last Samurai, especially one sequence where Algren is teaching soldiers how to load and fire their rifles, but they serve more as reference points than distractions.

The film's battle sequences are superb as is John Toll's photography, which captures the beauty of the country as well as the bloody horror of battle.

Hans Zimmer contributes a wonderful score, whose underlying Oriental themes, accentuate the various moods and plots.

The well-paced script by Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Gladiator's John Logan does wander into cliched territory at moments, but not really enough to detract from the movie.

The Last Samurai is a finely-crafted saga; a splendid blend of meditation on the necessity of action as well as action itself. It's a colorful and inspiring adventure.

Bob Bloom is the film critic at the Journal and Courier in Lafayette, IN. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or at [email protected] Other reviews by Bloom can be found at www.jconline.com by clicking on movies.
Bloom's reviews also appear on the Web at the Rottentomatoes Web site, www.rottentomatoes.com and at the Internet Movie Database:
http://www.imdb.com/M/reviews_by?Bob+Bloom

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