The Last Samurai Review

by Shannon Patrick Sullivan (shannon AT morgan DOT ucs DOT mun DOT ca)
December 29th, 2003

THE LAST SAMURAI (2003) / *** 1/2

Directed by Edward Zwick. Screenplay by John Logan, Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, based on a story by Logan. Starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Shichinosuke Nakamura. Running time: 144 minutes. Rated AA for violent scenes by the MFCB. Reviewed on December 25th, 2003.

By SHANNON PATRICK SULLIVAN

Synopsis: In the late nineteenth century, Nathan Algren (Cruise) is hired by representatives of the emperor of Japan (Nakamura) to help train their soldiers in modern combat techniques. They are opposed by a samurai named Katsumoto (Watanabe) who believes that the emperor is erring in abandoning Japan's old ways. Forced to lead his troops before they are ready, Algren is captured by Katsumoto's men and kept prisoner in their secluded village, giving him an opportunity to understand his captor's motivations.
Review: "The Last Samurai" has been much compared with the recent "Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World", and for good reason. Both are films which take basic action/adventure scenarios -- high seas derring-do in the latter, the conflict between incompatible cultures in the former -- but transcend the usual bounds of the genre. In particular, both feature an unexpected emphasis on character without it coming at the expense of big, exciting fight scenes. In "The Last Samurai", much of this strength of characterisation is invested in two individuals: Algren and Katsumoto. Cruise's performances tend to rise or fall to the quality of his material, and here he's very good indeed, investing Algren with a sense of shattered idealism reminiscent of his turn in "Born On The Fourth Of July". But his work here may be superseded by the outstanding Watanabe, who brings a steely wisdom to Katsumoto which nonetheless seems perfectly in harmony with his battle-ready intensity. Yet despite such impressive characters, Zwick indeed does not hold back on presenting some outstanding battle sequences: the first, in which Katsumoto's samurai appear out of the mists to attack, is particularly memorable. But "The Last Samurai" succeeds best as a reflection on the benefits of tradition in the face of modern advancement and, happily, leaves the final conclusions to the viewer.
Copyright 2003 Shannon Patrick Sullivan.
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