The 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 Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Spall, Koyuki, Hiroyuki Sanada, Billy Connolly, Shichinosuke Nakamura.

Last Samurai, The

Katsumoto: "Tell me... what happened to those three hundred warriors at Thermopylae?"
Algren (a grim smile): "Dead to the last one."

The Last Samurai 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 must take.

And 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.

Watched 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 he believes.

Narrated 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 right choice.

Director 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.

Speaking 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.

What 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.

The 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 movies.

© 2003 Matt Noller