Still, The Last Samurai gets Four Stars out of Five, proving that in spite of the fact that this isn't the divine piece of art that many would have you believe, but it is a somewhat accurate, and certainly entertaining piece of cinema that is beautiful to see, but not as smart as your average Spelling Bee Champ!
Tom Cruise is a drunken bad actor who will do anything for a buck. In The Last Samurai he actually plays a drunken bad actor who will do anything for a buck, but in this movie, he's also a United States Cavalry Officer who has made slaughtering Native Americans his stock and trade and the bane of his day and nightmares! Tom's Nathan Algren's drunken rifle hocking for Winchester is cut short as he's dragged by his boss (Tony Goldwyn's Colonel Bagley) to the great Nation of Japan, dying to shed its feudal past and adopt a modern future. Algren's role in all this? Train the new Japanese Army to bitch-slap any and every hippie-ass nature buff Samurais out there in the fields. You see it's 1878 (Or is it 1877? The dialogue can't decide!), and Japan is a far cry from the towering skyscrapers, Neon Toshiba signs and Hentai Porn we see in Lost in Translation or Tokyo Godfathers. Not even Manga had been invented yet, and Japan was all but a closed book to the West.
So what Algren finds there is anything but simple. The Samurai he is sworn to fight off are honorable and patriotic warriors with real families, real codes of honor and a pact with the land they love. Naturally that hits home with Algren's sensibilities (and nightmares). As the film progresses Algren becomes less Cavalry and more Samurai every day.
Not that this is particularly believable. Suspension of disbelief is the order of the day here as Cruise's Algren proves himself to be a remarkable swordsman and super-soldier able to take out ten armored Samurai with vastly superior training to his own, while wounded and on his knees. Then, when the script calls for it, he's logically the pupil of the superior Samurai as he's humiliated by a single warrior with a Bokken (wooden sword). Then, the script changes its mind again and he's a super-soldier, towering over the rest, and then back, then forth, then... it's a mess.
All the while, director Edward Zwick recycles several of his scenes from his other Civil War-Era drama Glory! And, of course, writer John Logan proves that his favorite movie must be Dances with Wolves as the entire plot was borrowed from that film. What's to expect from Logan, though? He also wrote Star Trek: Nemesis, a scene for scene remake of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan! Original, Logan is not!
But in spite of all this, and in spite of vastly superior Samurai films out there, The Last Samurai manages to work. Why? Mainly the acting. The title character (we hope) is Ken Watanabe's Katsumoto. Katsumoto isn't the usual single-dimension character that seems to mar so many of the films we call "epic" these days. While Zwick's direction, along with the writing of Logan, and Zwick's long time partner Marshall Herskovitz does a great job of making this venerable Samurai interesting, it's Watanabe himself that adds the depth to the character, that we all need. Watanabe seems to absorb and convey the conflict of this last samurai, the servant of the Emperor who knows that the Emperor's subordinates are killing his country. He acts with his eyes as well as his voice and makes a good character great.
The acting is overall decent, though never up to Ken's level. Actors William Atherton and Billy Connolly are solid and steady, but actor Shichinosuke Nakamura and actress Koyuki are definitely the ones to watch for. Even Cruise is pretty good here, though his smirky swagger is never fully shed.
The expansive scope of Zwick's Lense doesn't hurt a bit. The rolling green hills of Japan (and stand-in locations in California and New Zealand) are beautiful and richly textured. He's not the most consistent storyteller in the world, but the man knows what makes a frame frame-able!
The Last Samurai is good... and in parts, it's very good, but it will always be entertainment, not art. With more originality, accuracy and consistency, this might have been a classic. Newbies might love it, but those familiar with Samurai history and Samurai Lore might take a pass. Don't believe me? Fire up your DVD Player and watch Zwick's Glory, followed by Costner's Dances with Wolves, then pop in The Last Samurai! It'll feel familiar. Trust me, you'll Thirst for a Kurosawa film after that! Even so... you could do a lot worse than The Last Samurai. Hollywood or not, this film is never boring, and is sometimes quite touching (if inconsistent), and it's worth every bit of Four Stars. I mean, let's face it... the film's worst crime is that it's all been done before, and not always with an American in the mix to identify with. Hell. Until Eddie and Marsh decide to film One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and adding in Tom Cruise or Daniel Stern as that Yank to root for, I'll see you in the next reel. After that you'll be on your own, and you can watch what you will... and dance by the light of the moon.
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