The Last Samurai Review

by Andy Keast (arthistoryguy AT aol DOT com)
December 15th, 2003

The Last Samurai: 2 stars out of 4.
Directed by Edward Zwick.
Screenplay by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick.
Starring Tom Cruise, Kensaku Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada, Timothy Spall, Tony Goldwyn and Koyuki.

by Andy Keast

It's somewhere between "decent" and "so-so." It's about as good as "Braveheart": a merely standard Hollywood epic.

Kensaku Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada (English speakers know him from Japan's "Ringu") both create very memorable characters and I almost wanted the story to
be about them rather than Cruise. While I liked Cruise's performance in the movie, it's actually pretty slight. In the beginning, he's an alcoholic, a racist, and an opportunistic killer. By the end, he's sober, tolerant of the Japanese, and a more efficient killer. That's about it, and I guess I was expecting something a little more complex. It's "Dances With Wolves" except with Samurai warriors. Among other things, this movie is obviously a vehicle to get Cruise nominated for best actor. Cruise is only as good as whoever is directing him, and so here I found him lackluster.

Screenwriter John Logan said in interviews that the movie was about Cruise's character changing after interaction with Eastern culture. While that does happen, the "redemption" story remains an ancient cliche. I thought more about
how the modernization of Japan's army would inevitably doom the Shogunate. There are some scenes that I thought were unrealistic, for instance one where a
single archer is able to pick off dozens of men armed with rifles before being shot down. And I was a little skeptical when the movie wanted me to root for the men armed only with arrows and katana when they're up against soldiers with
Howitzers. It sounds pessimistic, but the Samurai never really stood a chance.
The director is Edward Zwick, who made "Glory," another movie where the supporting characters are more interesting than the lead. What these two movies have in common are strong supporting performances that are enough to carry a movie, but since they're Hollywood epics that need to sell and win oscars, they have a status quo leading man for the audience to "relate" to.
The final battle is certainly well crafted though. Zwick was obviously inspired by the battle in Kurosawa's "Ran." That's another thing: the war sequences in the movie are pretty raw and violent, like "Braveheart" or "Gladiator," and yet many audiences hate Verhoeven films or things like "Kill Bill." I'm beginning to think that "high-brow" middle-aged theater-goers really do have a thirst for bloodshed and violence at the movies just as much as the supposedly "depraved" audiences they decry --but they'll hide behind traditional, "ennobled" storytelling. That is, people who hated "Kill Bill" because of it's violence will love "The Last Samurai" and pay no mind to its level of carnage (which matches that of "Kill Bill"), only because it's "historically justified," which is nonsense.

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