The Last Samurai Review

by Karina Montgomery (karina AT cinerina DOT com)
December 15th, 2003

Last Samurai, The

Matinee with Snacks

Any movie banking on Tom Cruise is going to have to put up with the expectations of a "Tom Cruise movie." The delightful news is, and I mean this in a good way, The Last Samurai transcends itself; it is not just a Tom Cruise movie. I like Cruise best when he is vulnerable and flawed, rather than his cocky Top Gun self. Here, he is flawed and introspective and he goes through hell to learn a difficult lesson about xenophobia, patriotism, honor, and kicking ass with no resources. It has the epic feel of a story that would thrive in the mental medium of a novel, but at the same time, the beauty of 19th century Japan and the sheer determination of these ancient warriors demands big screen treatment. Writer John Logan has a spotty resume to say the least, but this film is excellent.

Despite the proliferation of Japanese sword fights in movies, including but not limited to the Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Kill Bill, this movie somehow makes that ancient and noble form of combat new again. An attack midway through the movie has a massive katana flight sequence that was as exciting and beautiful as if I had never seen such combat. That alone is super impressive. The rest of the movie is beautifully shot by John Toll (Braveheart), with lush scenes of beauty and also of brutality up on the Braveheart scale of realism. The battles are fought not only with weapons from different centuries, but with different senses of honor and duty.

Most impressive, if you can sit through all the credits after 140 minutes, is the very minimal use of computer imagery. From what it seemed, only the matte paintings of the period cities were computer generated - those troops are all out there on the field. And you can, you can feel the difference. Hans Zimmer's killer score and the fantastic sound don't hurt, either.

As in the Old West (from whence Cruise's character was plucked), it is a battle of old versus new, native versus conqueror, us versus them, honor versus glory, primitivism versus civilization. And also xenophobia and patriotism. A telling quote, spoken of course by "the good guys," is: "What is it about your own people you hate so much?" This confusion of compassion with anti-patriotism makes it a timely tale despite its period setting. If we knew our enemies better we would not be able to savage their culture and their bodies with such impunity. But we keep the walls up, the communication closed, slashing at them through one half-open eye. Cruise is caught in the middle, and the story is of his evolution and his journey. So it is an intimate tale told in an epic setting.

Japan's eagerness to embrace Western modernity at the expense of its own honorable and ancient culture is a fascinating element of the story as well. This internal us versus them mentality, their own civil war, reminds me (in a good way, believe it or not) of the "natives" (all immigrants or children of immigrants themselves) warring against the immigrants. The desperate need to forge a new identity and ignore one's own roots is compelling in this story.
It's very engaging and you do not feel the length of the film at all (unless you opted for the large Coke).

These reviews (c) 2003 Karina Montgomery. Please feel free to forward but credit the reviewer in the text. Thanks. You can check out previous reviews at: and - the Online Film Critics Society - Hollywood Stock Exchange Brokerage Resource

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