The Last Samurai (2003) Movie Review

While it may be a Hollywood big-budget epic about an Asian (and thus, foreign) culture, “The Last Samurai”, while picturesque and excellent on every technical level, is nonetheless strangely average. Which of course doesn’t mean it isn’t a good movie, because it could almost be great — except for the fact that nothing about it is very original. If you couldn’t guess the entire character arc of Tom Cruise’s haunted Army Captain then you must have turned your brain off during the movie. On the other hand, as a vessel of superficial entertainment with some Feudal Japan Appreciation thrown in for good measure, it’s a winner.

Tom Cruise (“Minority Report”) headlines as Nathan Algren, a U.S. Army Captain in 1876. Fresh off a stint butchering innocent Indians (aren’t they always innocent in Hollywood movies post-John Wayne?), Algren has become a hopeless drunk using his questionable hero status to hawk wares for a rifle company. Opportunity comes knocking in the form of Omura (Masato Harada), a Japanese ambassador who plans to hire Algren and Algren’s ex-commander (Tony Goldwyn, “Joshua”) to help modernize the Japanese army.

Off to Japan Algren goes, where he’s thrown into combat against rebel Samurai warrior Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a man of intense honor who is duty-bound to stop the surge of modernity swallowing his country and ending his way of life. The Emperor, a young man, is hopelessly under Omura’s thumb, and has decreed that all the Samurai must lay down arms or lose their heads. After a brutal battle, Algren is captured and brought to Katsumoto’s remote mountain village, where the American learns to value his enemy and vice versa, and before the 2 hours and 30 minutes are up, it’s time for another showdown — except now Algren is at Katsumoto’s side.

“The Last Samurai” spends the bulk of its long running time immersed in the natural simplicity, and yet hauntingly beautiful, life in the Japanese countryside. Katsumoto’s village is not only remote, but is blissfully trapped in the past, where honor and duty matters most of all. Even as Tokyo modernizes, and kimonos are exchanged for suits and top hats, Katsumoto and his loyal men hang onto their way of life with all their might. Not surprisingly, Algren is easily seduced by the tranquility and hopeless romanticism of Katsumoto’s village, as well as falling in love with Taka (Koyuki), whose home he’s staying in. Alas, their relationship looks doomed, because it was Algren who killed Taka’s husband in battle.

Then again, this is a Hollywood movie, so the script by director Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and John Logan (“Gladiator”) has as much subtlety as an ironsmith banging a katana into shape. And that, I’m afraid, is “Samurai’s” greatest weakness — it is so simple as to be condescending. One expects to see halos around all of the Samurai characters except for the fiery Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada), who would rather behead Algren instead of letting him loose in the village. But Katsumoto wants to keep Algren alive to “learn the enemy”. Not surprisingly, Katsumoto is conveniently English-capable.

The really big contrivance with “The Last Samurai” is its refusal to acknowledge that people are not black and white, and that a situation like Japan’s emergence onto the world stage after 100s of years of isolation can’t properly be portrayed as simply “village life good, city life bad”. But if complex themes aren’t the movie’s forte, it also has some problems with characters. Tony Goldwyn’s Colonel Bagley is so villainous you just know he’s going to get skewered by a sword before the final credits. As well, Masato Harada’s Omura oozes slime. The film’s ending even ignores the fact that an Imperial Japan soon emerged to butcher their way through the Pacific.

In a backhanded sort of way, I suppose “Samurai” should get credit for turning what should have been an intricate study of a volatile situation into a kindergarten read-along. The film does make up for some of its lack of depth with stunning photography by John Toll (“The Thin Red Line”). The film never struggles with the visuals, and that’s a big plus in its corner. But although “Samurai” has the look and feel of an epic, there is something grounded, even constrained, about it that keeps it from becoming fully breathtaking.

“Samurai’s” story definitely lends itself to major battle scenes. There are two battles, and the first one, in a forest, ends much too quickly. The final battle goes on for about 30 minutes. They’re all well stage, and Zwick employs some CGI to accentuate the ferocity of Samurai battle, including a lot of CGI arrows finding their mark. But while the battles are realistic and brutal, this isn’t “Braveheart”, which may be surprising considering all the swords hacking away.

“The Last Samurai” is a good movie. At 2 hours and 30 minutes it has enough time to explore its main characters with nuance (or at least, the good guys). Unfortunately every scene that doesn’t take place in the village, or involve people who doesn’t live in the village, rings false. One almost wishes Bagley had a mustache to twirl, and that Omura should be twirling his.

Edward Zwick (director) / Edward Zwick, John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz (screenplay)
CAST: Hiroyuki Sanada …. Ujio
Shin Koyamada …. Nobutada
Shun Sugata …. Nakao
Ken Watanabe …. Katsumoto
Tom Cruise …. Nathan Algren
Billy Connolly …. Zebulon Gant
Tony Goldwyn …. Colonel Bagley

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