The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai has been called the latest Tom Cruise vanity project, but that is a little unfair as it’s more than just that. There is real depth in the lengthy 2 ˝ hours running time.

Captain Nathan Algren (Ton Cruise) is a former war hero who, in-between getting drunk and getting drunk is wheeled out by the Remington Rifle company to sell rifles in a carnival display. Algren drinks to forget his involvement in Custer’s slaughtering of innocent Indians – women and children included – and his disillusionment with what he’s done in his life under the guise of war.

After being fired for being drunk one time too many, Algren is approached by the Japanese Government to help train their Army and Algren agrees citing “For $500 a month I’d kill whoever you want”. Before long, Algern is in bustling Yokohamaz, Japan and taking command of the Emperor’s forces. Unfortunately he is not in total command as the Japanese have also enlisted his snivelling former commanding officer Colonel Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn). With Japan trying to be a much more progressive country and with a young and untested Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) official in charge, the politicians are the real rulers moving towards a more Western design.

The plans for the country are being attacked by the fearless Samurai who see Japan losing its own identity in its quest to become more ‘civilized’. These attacks are being led by the mighty warrior Katsumoto (Ken Wanatabe) and his dreaded Samurai warriors.

Before long and against Algren’s advice, Bagly orders the Army to move against the Samurai and their inexperience and poor training is no match for the powerful and ruthless Samurai who have no difficulty defeating them. Algren, who stayed to fight, is captured and taken prisoner by Katsumoto.

Katsumoto and his warriors return to their village with their prisoner in tow and as winter is coming and the paths through the mountains become impassable, Algren is left to wander the village at will with only one silent guard following him.

Over the weeks that pass, Algren slowly comes to realise that the Samurai are not the ignorant savages that he thought and that their way of life is one of contemplation and honour.

As the winter thaws and spring peeks over the mountains, Katsumoto, his warriors and Algren return to Yokohamaz, where Algren is released. After reuniting with his former army comrades, Algren realises that he was fighting for the wrong reasons and decides that he should fight for what he believes in and for his newly revived honour.

The Last Samurai on the surface could be compared to Dances With Wolves, but its more akin to Braveheart with it’s focus on honour and battlefield viciousness. It is a fairly intense and fierce film, with honour, respect and ideals being the central themes.

Performances are superb from almost everyone involved. Tom Cruise really has immersed himself into the role and it shows, but even his performance is lacking something that almost every one of the veteran Japanese actors that are scattered throughout the film show; presence. Thankfully his smirking is kept to a minimum and is replaced with a subtly honest performance.

Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto brings an awesome presence throughout and completely overshadows Cruise in every scene that they share together, which is saying something. His performance is one of superb control, ferocity, warmth and an inherent sadness. He says more with a stare than Cruise does in the entire film. Others including newcomer Koyuki, who plays the wife of a warrior killed by Algren, play their roles with emotion and deep sadness.

The strangest appearance is by Billy Connelly, who apparently plays a soldier and friend to Captain Algren. Connelly turns up at the beginning, speaks with an Irish accent that sounds unbelievably Scottish and gets slaughtered within the first 25 minutes – bizarre!

The direction is a tad lazy by Edward Zwick as it relies on long beautiful scenery too much, but the tactical battles and action scenes do make up for that. The choreography is superb and brutal, with even quick, personal sword fights matching the ferocity and intensity of the clash between old and new weapons. Plus thankfully the now overused wire-fu shenanigans of The Matrix are completely absent which makes a refreshing change.

On the whole The Last Samurai is a film that delivers, even with the slightly overcooked ending speech, which smacks of an ending pampering the behest of some studio execs. Shame that the ending could not have kept the convictions of the rest of the film together, but don’t let that detract from what is a superb film.

Score 9/10