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THE LAST SAMURAI

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki
Director: Edward Zwick
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 154 Minutes
Release Date: May 4, 2004

“Do you believe a man can change his destiny?”

“I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed.”

Film ****

Now here is a film that defines the term epic. From the perspective of a filmgoer who truly appreciates that of both adventure movies and those with a huge level of dramatic effect, The Last Samurai offers the best of both worlds at equal doses. As far as big time epics are concerned, this may go on record, for my money at least, as one of the best ever made.

Of all the films released last year, hardly any of them even begin to compare with the experience that is The Last Samurai. It’s easy for any movie to be looked at as great, but for one to have the power to sweep you, the viewer, with its every frame and story maneuver, is a very rare and therefore incredible quality. The visionary power of director Edward Zwick (Courage Under Fire, Glory) and the presence of Tom Cruise in one of the actor’s most triumphant performances ever combine to make this a most amazing moviegoing experience one is sure not to forget.

Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, Cruise stars as Nathan Algren, a former union soldier who, at the beginning of the movie, is a drunk and reduced to performing reenactments of war killing for townspeople at rifle shows. Algren has become a drunk mostly because of the actions he was forced to take under the command of Gen. Custer. He has no further respect for the Union army, who in fact come to Algren with a proposition of business.

“I have never been a church-going man…  

A delegation from Japan is seeking American soldiers to train the Emperor’s military forces modern warfare. The country is requesting the training due to the threat of rebel “samurai” forces that are derailing their plans for construction of a railroad being constructed by the Japanese government. Promised a good enough pay day for his duties, Algren agrees to travel Japan and train the Emperor’s forces as quick as possible in order to intervene.

Once he has arrived in Japan, Algren becomes acquainted with his newly assigned regiment and wastes no time in teaching them techniques of rifle firing. When he has received word that their strike is to take place earlier than anticipated, Algren knows he’s leading a group of unprepared men into battle.

The rebellion Algren is being trained to fight against is being led by the samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). When Algren’s troops confront the samurai, it is a near slaughter. Algren, however, is spared death and ordered as prisoner by Katsumoto, who observes the man in action and is even impressed by his killing of one of Katsumoto’s men.

…and what I have seen on the field of battle has led me to question God’s purpose.

Of course, Algren himself is amazed to find himself alive, even as a prisoner of his so-called enemy. Upon his first conversation with Katsumoto, he questions what he wants, to which the old and wise warrior responds, “To know my enemy.” The two engage in many conversations, as Algren documents his time in the village from the winter of 1876 all the way into the spring of 1877.

During this time, Algren is amazed by the things he becomes witness to in this distinct and secret culture. He will come to learn the unique ways in the art of the samurai conduct of battle, and grow closer to Katsumoto’s sister, Taka (Koyuki), a relationship that serves a more special purpose than you’d probably expect. Algren’s true test comes when he fearlessly helps defend Katsumoto’s village from ninjas.

What follows is another crucial test of Algren’s newfound loyalty, return to Tokyo to reside with his former task or remain with the samurai and face extreme consequences. Feeling that the samurai has long been in service of the Emperor, who is actually being pressured by the government into giving into allying with the Americans, Katsumoto makes a crucial plea with the helpless ruler to be at his side. At an unsuccessful resolution, it’s clear that the matter will be taken to the battlefield.

But there is, indeed, something spiritual in this place. And though it may forever be obscure to me…  

As you could probably gather from my extensive detail of the film’s story, it’s simply hard to deny the impact of this film. The portions I responded very emotionally were the ones where Algren is getting to know the environment around him, and reflecting through his discoveries in his journal writings. With every new thing he sees or learns, I truly feel as if I was right there learning and seeing with him, a feeling that is rare for me to convey.

Along with Zwick’s powerful direction, The Last Samurai has been given a phenomenal look to it, thanks to cinematographer John Toll, whose track record (The Thin Red Line, Braveheart) speaks for itself. There are images in this film that go beyond description, leaving you much more than awestruck. The cinematography is so amazing, that I’m shock to note that not only did it not win the Oscar, it wasn’t even nominated! As it turns out, good bit of this movie is told through images more than dialogue.

And as for the performances of Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, they are both the epitome of pure acting brilliance. Cruise is simply one of few big named stars whose power to choose what he wants to do actually leads to incredible and monumental work, and The Last Samurai is by far the best example of this notion. Some complain that no matter what he’s portraying, you don’t see anything past the Cruise persona. Not the case here, as the actor is immersed in the character of Algren completely, so much to the point that at times, it doesn’t seem like you’re watching the basic Tom Cruise performance. It’s perhaps the actor’s strongest, most convicting piece of acting yet.

…I cannot but be aware of its power.”

As for the deservingly Oscar-nominated Watanabe, this is performance of pure commanding power. He injects Katsumoto with so many different elements, particularly that of intelligence and wisdom. It is such a unique performance, that I could not imagine any other actor bringing this character to full life, and that’s a strong compliment for an actor I had never seen before. To be honest, when I first gazed up Watanabe, I mistook him for Chow Yun-Fat. How embarrassing?

To perfectly describe The Last Samurai, I’ll eagerly use the very reaction my friend and DMC cohort Mike J. said in his reaction to the equally brilliant Kill Bill Vol. 2; it’s everything a movie should be and more. It’s easy to get a movie made and have it be great, but to expertly piece together an epic film and master every angle, including story, look and design, spectacular action sequences and strongly believable acting, well…that’s something of a true accomplishment in my perspective, and that’s what The Last Samurai truly is.

Video ****

Warner has constructed a nothing short of marvelous looking disc, sure to top the list of choices for best looking disc at our next DMC Awards. The stunning anamorphic transfer is flawless in its enhancing of the already mentioned beautiful cinematography by John Toll. There are an equal amount of shots that take place in day and in night, and both pay off extremely well. Colors appear as striking and as natural as can be. Not a single image flaw to be found in sight. Although there is a full screen version available, you’d be doing yourself a grave injustice by not seeking out this much superior edition, where you’ll truly get more in the picture area.

Audio ****

There’s a reason this film was nominated for Best Sound, and the strikingly powerful 5.1 mix perfectly illustrates it in this soaring presentation. The audacious battle sequences, along with the in-between swordfights, payoff exuberantly with pure audio bombasticness, for lack of a better word. The final 40 minutes of the film, alone, will have your pulses racing. Other areas, including dialogue and Hans Zimmer’s beautiful music score to the film are nice added bonuses too. As the case with the video quality, this audio presentation is also worthy of mention at the end of the year.

Features ****

WB has definitely ushered in their first great extras-loaded offering of the year. So much to go around—here’s hoping I nail every detail.

Disc 1 includes a commentary track with director Edward Zwick.

Disc 2 contains about 8, count em—8 documentaries, starting off with “Tom Cruise: A Warrior’s Journey”, which reflects the actor’s experience of making the movie. There’s also Edward Zwick’s own Video Journal, as well as “Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise”, “A World of Detail” which covers the set design, “Silk and Armor”, a costume design featurette, “Imperial Army Basic Training” and “From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons”.   Lastly, there are a few deleted scenes, highlights from the Japan premiere, and a trailer, as well as additional PC material.

Summary:

Movies don’t even begin to be as exciting and worthy of impact like The Last Samurai. A masterpiece of storytelling, cinematography, and action, this is a timeless adventure saga that is sure to become an instant classic for years to come.