The Last Samurai (2003)

Director: Edward Zwick

Cast: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall

Synopsis: Cruise plays the fictional character of Nathan Algren, a former American soldier haunted by memories of atrocities he was ordered to commit when fighting against Native Americans.   He is hired to train the new Japanese military arm, which seeks to eradicate a rebel Samurai clan which resists the modernisation of the nation.   When Algren is taken prisoner by the Samurai, he gains insights into a rich and beautiful culture, which may even offer him a chance at redemption.

A review by Film Nerd.

In many ways, this film is a master stroke.   Zwick has found another fascinating story to tell, even if it is only loosely based on history (some of the events depicted in truth actually occurred over the course of a number of generations).   Like the classic film Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai, it features many different personality types within the culture united by a sense of honour.   Like Glory, it provides insight into a maligned culture which is in reality much more beautiful than that of its more civilised neighbours.   However, perhaps by comparison to both these films, in the end it seems to fall a little short.

Unfortunately, part of that is down to Cruise’s performance.   Top a modern audience, this may seem no surprise, but given that Cruise can show some great skill when paired with a good director, it is a curiosity that he and Zwick did not mesh more.   A great pity, as Watanabe was a true revelation in this film.   His character Katsumoto is the chief Samurai, and lives and dies by his code of conduct.   He still retains a sense of humour, and can be quite whimsical, giving the character true charisma.   It is easy to understand that his samurai are not only bound by honour to defend the Japanese way of life that they love, but that they would also follow Katsumoto to whatever end.

Perhaps another failing is the previous comparison I made to Glory.   The  stories are very similar, and at times it feels Zwick is repeating himself, no time more so than in a fire-arms training sequence, where some dialogue was even repeated from the earlier film.

These mis-steps aside though, the Samurai are treated with a great deal of respect, and if there is a true star of this film it is the depiction of their way of life away from battle.   They may live by a warrior code, but it extends way beyond this.   It focuses on how honour determines their actions.   It emphasises the strength of the bond of family.   Even Cruise’s hamming is overshadowed by the family with which he stays… the family of a man whom he himself killed in combat.   The conflict they experience caring for a man who caused them so much pain is handled with delicacy and heart, and it is moments like these where it escapes the Glory parallels that it really shines.

If you are somebody so over Tom Cruise and you cannot separate his acting from the couch jumper on Oprah, I would advise you avoid this.   But for anyone else, walk in knowing that there are flaws, but that the plotting and the characterisation of this film still make it well worthy of a viewing.

3.5 stars (out of a possible 5)

The Last Samurai on IMDB

The Last Samurai on Rotten Tomatoes

Trailer [youtube=]

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