The Last Samurai

Film Review by Jeffrey Winters

The Last Samurai is far more complex then the trailers high octane battle images presented on TV. Writer John Logan teamed with director Ed Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall), to present a story about a man grabbing at a second chance in life. Along with Tom Cruise’s personal transformation, is the clash of feudal Japan with modern Japan in the 1870’s. This story is enjoyable, but as important is how the film educates the audience on the ways of the Samurai and early Japanese culture.

Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren a civil war hero who later in his military career was actively involved in Native American atrocities. This has led him to drink and travel around selling Winchester rifles in arcades. He is recruited by his old superior officer, Col. Benjamin Bagley (Tom Goldwyn) to go to Japan and train a modern Japanese army that wants to leave the Samurai tradition behind for modern warfare techniques. Cruise does it for the money. He lands in a beautifully depicted 19th century Tokyo where people are at a cross roads wearing contemporary western suits contrasted with traditional flowing kimonos.

In The Last Samurai, Cruise embodies his character Nathan Algren with an introverted sadness and longing for an escape from the killing machine he’s become. When Cruise acts the darker side of the emotional spectrum, like he did in Born on the Fourth of July, he subjugates his charisma for acting. I don’t think this performance is worthy of an academy award, but the point is, he is growing as an actor. This acting side of Cruise is far more convincing then when he tries to act with arrogance (Top Gun), or a confused and bewildered cockiness (Vanilla Sky). In those types of films, his smile and beautiful teeth take up too much screen and are no substitute for skilled acting.

For this film, director Ed Zwick hired cinematographer John Toll to capture in exquisite detail the village life of the Samurai. Japanese actor Ken Watanabe plays Samurai leader Katsumoto. His performance as co-star with Cruise is powerful, feeling, intelligent and focused.

After Algren (Cruise) is captured and taken by Katsumoto (Watanabe) to his beautiful village, we watch Algren heal from his wounds and walk around watching the Samurai learn how to sword fight. He witnesses the Samurai strive to develop a quiet mind through meditation and appreciation for the aesthetics of a blooming flower. When Algren grows weary of his own nightmares and self-loathing, he throws himself into the sword fighting and Samurai way of life. As a warrior, Algren (Cruise) learns the internal discipline along with the skills of their unique fighting techniques. In essence he becomes one of them in a similar fashion to Kevin Costner embodying the Native American lifestyle in Dances With Wolves.

The final battle in The Last Samurai could compete with the battle in Braveheart for attempting to glorify a blood bath as a visually stunning exercise in war’s noble futility. Also the ending of the film took a shift into Hollywood’s happy ending land. Regardless, this ambitious film is highly entertaining.