The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai

*****

Reviewed by: Stephen Carty

Edward Zwick is a man who knows how to do war-torn period-piece dramas. Having rendered the American Civil War with acclaim-magnet Glory and captured the pre-First World War prohibition era with melodrama Legends Of The Fall, the historically-educated director now takes on a personal fascination as he moves to the demise of feudal Japan.

That sound a little dull for you? Don’t worry, the Cruister is on hand to lend his usual shouty intensity as celebrated Civil War hero, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise), a man haunted by past events who spends his days trying to drink away the guilt. After being hired by the Japanese government to train an army with which to oppose Samurai rebels, Algren is forced to take his new squad into battle prematurely and ends up captured. However, after spending time with their leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), he starts to embrace their way of life.

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Pleasingly, the partnership of Zwick and Cruise results in a truly beautiful motion picture. Grand in scale yet never forgetting about the smaller moments, exciting as hell though constantly staying true to measured characterisation, The Last Samurai glistens like one of the honourable warrior’s blades. Though there are obvious shades of both Braveheart (epic battles, a small people rising against tyrants) and Seven Samurai (well, it’s about Samurai), its closest cousin in terms of spirit is actually Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves.

Sure, there are plenty of memorable action scenes – like Algren demonstrating how unready his troops are or seeing a sword fight play out before it happens – but the heart of the movie is one broken man’s internal journey towards redemption and inner-peace. Thankfully, while the emotional passage of a world-weary westerner to contemplative bushido-practitioner could have been soppy and overly-sentimental, here it’s dealt with in a gradual manner that is unusually thoughtful.

Consequently, as Algren's curiosity towards these people grows, we understand just how alluring this culture is. Complemented by some striking scenery, near-flawless production design and Hans Zimmer's understated-yet-contemplative score, Zwick creates an appropriately calming feel while the cinematography captures the inherent beauty of the village's surroundings. The silhouetted image of our hero practising his moves as the sun fades might sound clichéd, but there's something truly soothing about it.

As for Cruise, for once his name doesn't overshadow the character as he disappears into Algren, capturing the soul-destroyed borderline alcoholic with his best performance in years. However, as good as Tom is, it’s Watanabe who leaves the strongest impression. Honourable, intelligent and an absolute machine with a sword (not to mention amusing as the comedic figure in a play), Watanabe is suitably charismatic to the point we’re also drawn to him. Plus, he enjoys good conversations.

The support is excellent throughout, too. Timothy Spall is classy as always, the accent-changing Billy Connolly elicits plenty of smiles despite being little more than a cameo and Tony Goldwyn brings the necessary boo-hiss to Algren's former colleague. The Japanese cast also impress, particularly Koyuki's appropriately retrained love interest and Hiroyuki Sanada's ferocious stick-wielding frowner.

Much like Katsumoto and his band of loyal warriors, The Last Samurai is elegant, disciplined and, ultimately, stirring. As the man himself would say, you might spend your whole life waiting on a movie this beautiful and it would not be a wasted life.

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2009
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Tom Cruise goes native in Japan in the years when honour was prized more highly than life itself.
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Angus Wolfe Murray **

Director: Edward Zwick

Writer: John Logan, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz

Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Koyuki, Tony Goldwyn, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Masato Harada, Shin Koyamada, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shun Sugata, Aoi Minato, Seizo Fukumoto

Year: 2003

Runtime: 144 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/New Zealand/Japan

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