Last Samurai. Warner
Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Edward Zwick.
Written by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick.
Running time: 150 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence
and battle sequences). Starring
Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Spall, Koyuki,
Hiroyuki Sanada, Billy Connolly, Shichinosuke Nakamura.
me... what happened to those three hundred warriors at Thermopylae?"
(a grim smile): "Dead to the last one."
is a rare treat, an action epic that cares more about its
story and characters than the action. Although there is one
stunning battle sequence at the end of film, the majority
of the movie is devoted to Japanese culture and the journey
- both physically and emotionally - that its main character
what a journey that is. The Last Samurai tells the
story of Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a Civil War hero
who has been hired by the Japanese government to train their
army. A band of insurgents, led by the samurai Katsumoto (Ken
Watanabe), has been routinely attacking the emperor's land,
and the government needs to stop them. Along with his former
commander (and rival), Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn),
Algren sets out to defend a railroad system in danger of attack
from Katsumoto. But the Japanese troops aren't ready; the
battle is a disaster, and Algren is captured by Katsumoto
and returned to their village.
over by Taka (Koyuki), Katsumoto's sister, Algren slowly recovers
from his wounds and begins to observe the samurai. He has
long discussions with Katsumoto, and the two eventually grow
to respect one another. When the village is attacked, Algren
fights alongside his once-captors. Although he is eventually
returned to the Emperor, Algren must decide whether to fight
for what he is being paid to fight for or to fight for what
from the viewpoint of Algren's journal, The Last Samurai
does an effective job of developing his psyche. Algren is
tormented by his past ("I am hired to once again stop
the rebellion of another tribal leader," he writes, "apparently
the only job for which I am qualified."), and this aspect
of the character is well-handled. The relationship between
Katsumoto and Algren is believable and truthful. At first,
Algren resents Katsumoto and his traditionalism; but as he
learns more about the man, a friendship forms. Their conversation
topics range from the simple to the complex, but they are
never uninteresting. I also respect that the relationship
between Algren and Taka, whose husband Algren killed in battle,
never becomes overtly sexual. Some may feel that keeping it
in the background is a bad idea, but I feel that it was the
Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire) does
an admirable job of establishing the atmosphere of 1870's
Japan. By filming in Japan, he manages to keep the feeling
authentic, and by making Katsumoto a student of English, subtitles
are avoided. I'm not exactly learned on samurai or their customs,
but the village and its ceremonies seem real enough. The battle
sequences, particularly the final epic one, are brilliantly
composed and filmed, and Zwick's influences are obvious enough.
Kurosawa stands out as the obvious one, with Ran and
The Seven Samurai (from which, Zwick has said, everything
you need to know to be a director can be learned) being the
most obvious films from which Zwick draws inspiration.
of Kurosawa, Ken Watanabe seems to be effortlessly channelling
Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune. This is not meant to say
that Watanabe is ripping Mifune off - instead, it should be
seen as great praise. Watanabe captures every nuance of his
character, from his loyalty to his nobility to his pride.
He has great charisma and screen presence, commanding our
attention for every second that he's on screen. Not to take
anything away from Cruise's work - he's a good enough actor
to be convincing - but Watanabe stands out above all the rest.
gives The Last Samurai the majority of its power is
the way in which the climactic battle - between Katsumoto's
samurai and the Emperor's army - is handled. Like the Alamo
or Thermopylae (both of which are referenced in the film),
it is a fight between two drastically mismatched armies. There
is never a moment in The Last Samurai that we or the
characters believe that they can actually win the battle,
making the whole thing a sequence of grim inevitability.
final, hauntingly beautiful shot of that battle stands out
as one of the most memorable of the year. So does The Last
Samurai stand out as one of the most memorable films of
the year. The individual parts of the film are all strong,
but when added together, they combine into one of 2003's better
2003 Matt Noller