The Last Samurai Review

by Richard A. Zwelling (razwee AT yahoo DOT com)
December 11th, 2003

**** (out of ****)
a film review by
Richard A. Zwelling

Captain Algren (Tom Cruise) is a veteran of the civil war. As we open the film, Algren delivers a cue-carded speech meant to laud the United States and praise the advancement of technological progress. His cynicism, coupled with his inebriation, gets the better of him, and we immediately see a man wounded by his past, insecure with himself, and plagued by the material concerns his society thrusts upon him.
So it's no surprise when he accepts the offer of a Japanese military commander who agrees to pay him $500 per month, and then some. Algren's task will be to mobilize the armed forces of Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura) and prepare them for the annihilation of the last remaining Samurai warriors of Japan. These warriors, Algren learns, resist the modern and mechanistic changes forced upon them. They refuse to fight with firearms, and as we eventually see, they do not fight for material gain.

In preparation, Algren wants to study the ways of the Samurai. When a character acts pleased that someone takes interests in the culture, Algren's response is, "I don't give a damn about the Samurai! I just want to know my enemy". So Algren begins as a man mechanically carrying out orders at the whim of the almighty dollar.

In battle, however, he is captured by his enemy, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who leads a rural village where the few remaining Samurai reside. His captor, who before was just a target, now has a very prominent face, and due to the upcoming winter, Algren must remain in the village until the following spring.

It is during his time there that he unexpectedly finds the peace he has desperately been searching for. He learns the language, adopts the customs, and even begins to train in the ways of the Samurai warrior. Ostracized from the encroaching world of avarice, materialism, and "progress", Algren slowly comes to realize the value of this strange culture, not only due to its adherence to honor and discipline, but also because it allows him to find value and dignity within himself.

It is not hard to see that Algren is not a unique case. When we see people bow or kneel to the imperial soldiers, it is out of fear or servility. When the villagers bow to the Samurai, it is out of respect and admiration. These are men, women, and children who take pride in every task they undertake.

Algren, a man once indifferent to the brutal manifestations of his assignment, changes into a man who has suddenly found something worth fighting for. He no longer fights under the motivation of self-concern and material gain, but through a newly awakened passion. He finds himself, but is paradoxically free of self-concern. By the end of the film, he has not only changed his values, but also discovered a tranquility within himself that few ever find.

This film will easily bring a slew of Oscar nominations. This might finally be Tom Cruise's moment of triumph in the Best Actor category, and in this case, it is very very deserving. Doing much more than merely acting as a magnet for the camera's eye, Cruise's emotional pitch is on-target every step of the way. Take the initial and final scenes of the film and compare Cruise's face in each, and you will notice a wealth of difference that is accomplished patiently and slowly during the film's duration.

The direction of Edward Zwick employs a stunning shot selection that remarkably maximizes dramatic impact, and yet at the same time eschews self-attention and pretentiousness. He will receive a nomination as well, as will the costume and set designers, the screenwriters (Zwick, John Logan, and Marshall Herskovitz), the editors, and several others. What better man than Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) to pen the music score for a grand battle epic such as this?

For me personally, however, I have to give special note to the cinematography of John Toll. This is a stunning, virtuoso performance of colors, lighting, and shot execution that is relentlessly breathtaking and wonderfully engrossing. I was almost ready to hand out my imaginary Richard A. Zwelling award for cinematography, but then I remembered Andrew Lesnie and his work on a certain concluding chapter to a major fantasy epic. December 17 will tell, but Toll's work here is going to be hard to beat.

The Last Samurai would run away with the fight choreography Oscar...if there were one. The battle scenes are fantastic, albeit very brutal and graphic. So much about what makes these fight scenes work lies in the emotional investment we have in the characters. The execution itself is riveting, but it is our concern for those involved that creates the true captivation (and raises our already frenetic heart-rates).

It is because of this concern that several battle sequences are excruciatingly tragic and devastating. In several key sequences, Zwick does not conceal or dilute the full impact of the empire's onslaughts against the Samurai. The cruelty, viciousness, heartlessness, and disinterest with which the imperial forces use sophisticated artillery to massacre the Samurai, who nonetheless proudly cling to their swords and their ways, are depicted with ruthless candor.

Nevertheless, this should not be seen as a detractor, because this film is a magnificent experience. It is also an indication that Hollywood is still capable of producing an intelligently written, well-shot, well-directed epic. And as we all know, the Academy practically slobbers over those kinds of films.

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