The Last Samurai Review

by John Ulmer (johnulmer2003 AT msn DOT com)
January 22nd, 2004


4/5 stars

Date of Review: January 20th, 2004

REVIEW BY JOHN ULMER (Copyright, 2004)

After watching "Little Big Man" and "The Last Samurai" within a week of each other, it seems as though they are both very similar. A man is taken in by another culture, then freed and decides to defend them out of his own free will. Both films bash Custer, too.

Edward D. Zwick, the man behind "Glory" and "Legends of the Fall", directs the latter of the two before mentioned films. Here he creates a good -- although long -- portrait of one man who joined a war not many people know about. It's not a great movie, but it's certainly a good one.

The hero is played by Tom Cruise. His name is Nathan Algren, and he is a Civil War hero who is paid to read lines on stage in the year 1876, fascinating onlookers with his knowledge and tales of the war -- when he's not drunk, that is. When his performance is noticed by Sgt. Zebulah Grant (Billy Connolly), he is offered a job to travel to Japan and train hundreds of soldiers in the art of war. Why? Because the emperor of the country wants to modernize Japan, but a band of Samurai are rebelling. They need to be fought, but Japan's soldiers have no knowledge of modern weapons. Nathan does.

During a battle between the Samurai and Nathan's battle, he shows great courage and honor and is taken hostage by the Samurai, falling under the care of Taka (Koyuki), whose husband was killed by Nathan in a bloody showdown. The Samurai leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), is impressed by Nathan and their "good conversations," and decides to train him in the way of the Samurai.

Nathan falls in love (one of the biggest cliches of film history) with Taka, although the romance never goes over the top, which was a pleasant relief.
But when Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn) leads an army of Japanese into battle against the Samurai, Nathan has to ask himself whom he will fight for. The answer is somewhat predictable by any standard, and the ending is somewhat ridiculous, but it's a good film and certainly one worth seeing if you enjoy war films.

I've never been impressed by Tom Cruise, mainly because I've never seen him stretch his roles. "Rain Man" is one of my favorite performances, but Cruise plays Cruise. In "The Firm," Cruise plays Cruise. In "Top Gun," Cruise plays Cruise. And now, in "The Last Samurai," Cruise once again plays Cruise. But at least he manages to do more than a few different facial expressions in this -- he's now added angry and sad to his list. In fact, Cruise does quite well here. The thing is, he has yet to impress me by playing someone...different. When someone can play an entirely different person (like Hoffman in "Rain Man") and convince me that they are no longer that familiar actor, it's always a great sign. I wish Cruise would try a more daring film role for once.

Tony Goldwyn, who has always played good villains, is perfect here -- really annoying with an evil-like voice that's actually just bland. It gets on your nerves, which is a good thing. If he had played the hero, I would have left the theater. (Or come pretty close to doing that. I've never left a theater, and I never plan to.)

Ken Watanabe, who is receiving generous acclaim for his role, is pretty good -- although I wouldn't say that his performance is deserving of an Oscar.
Zwick's downfall here is that he sometimes tries a bit too hard. He had tried to turn "The Last Samurai" into both a political message and a rousing epic, but when compared to something such as "Braveheart," it fails miserably. I didn't feel very much for Cruise's character here. And there are too many unneeded scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

And while I'm picking on the movie, another thing I noticed is that the dialogue is sometimes corny and rather dumb. "Tell me how he died," an emperor asks Nathan. "I'll tell you how he lived," Nathan replies. Seriously, it's just a bit too heavy on the cornball moments sometimes. And are we supposed to believe that Nathan would really survive a Samurai attack, then a battle against an army of Japanese soldiers with guns and cannons, left to be THE last man on the battlefield (hence the title)?
But the battle scenes are, for the most part, quite exhilarating; the acting is very good (although I still don't think Cruise has stretched very far from his other roles), and the direction fine. The two factors that reduced this from a great rating to a very good one are the length and sometimes quite silly dialogue. If you can stomach those two things, check out "The Last Samurai."

- John Ulmer
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