The Last Samurai
3 out of 5 stars
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Edward Zwick
scr John Logan, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
with Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall, Tony Goldwyn, Koyuki, Billy Connolly, Shin Koyamada, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Seizo Fukumoto, Shun Sugata
release US 5.Dec.03; UK 9.Jan.04
03/US 2h24

Samurai take a stand: Watanabe and Cruise rally the troops

watanabe cruise
spall connolly goldwyn
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Writer-director Zwick has a way with complex movies about bravery and honour (Glory, Courage Under Fire), although he also tends to slightly overcook the material (The Siege, Legends of the Fall). This film brings out both tendencies in an entertaining but uneven battle epic. By the mid-1870s, Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a bitter veteran of the US Army's attempts to subdue the Native American population. He accepts an offer of work from the Japanese government, just to get away from the demons that haunt him ... although he's still working with his bloodthirsty commander (Goldwyn)! The new job is to train and equip the army of the Emperor (Nakamura) to suppress the Samurai rebellion, but it doesn't quite go to plan. Soon Algren is captured by the Samurai lord Katsumoto (Watanabe), who's curious about this tenacious, troubled American. And as Algren begins to understand the Samurai code of honour, he begins to find his real self.

There's a terrific central story here that really draws us in, and Cruise's strong performance engages us in Algren's quest. As usual, Cruise throws himself headlong into the role--physically, emotionally and dramatically--and even if it's a rather self-conscious performance, it's some of his best work, with moments of gut-wrenching drama and astonishing physicality (he does all his own fighting and stuntwork). Watanabe is excellent as his spiritual foil; supporting characters such as the Samurai played by Sanada and Harada (and others) are fascinating and very well-played; and the amazing Spall shines in a small but key role. The film also looks amazing, with spectacular New Zealand scenery standing in for 19th century Japan. But Zwick's choices as a director are more troublesome--the film is choppy and over-edited, even in the quiet moments, with action scenes that rarely grab hold simply because we can't see what's happening. And the script refuses to immerse itself in the complexities of the culture, continually defining everything in Western terms. At first this echoes Algren's experience, but as he embraces the Samurai ways, the film finds itself at odds with him. Depth is only glimpsed in the complex emotions in the actors' eyes; everything else is simplistic or muddled. And while the film still has seriously powerful moments, it's never as profound or telling--or as gripping or emotional or even as sexy--as we know it could have been.

cert 15 themes, violence 8.Dec.03

R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... The Last Samurai Laurie T, Minneapolis: "This is one of those big epic movies - long, and a sort of history lesson in Japan. I read Shogun and that whole series and have always been fascinated by the Japanese tradition, beliefs and lifestyle. Their value of human life is quite a bit different from ours - and if a man is shamed, it is considered an honorable way to die if they take their own life. When this movie started, I easily figured out where it was going; a sorta stereotypical plot - drunk discovers new way of life from someone he thought was supposed to be an enemy. So I knew he would end up siding with the samurai - even though he did not fully grasp the Japanese concept and complex politics. But I could not guess the ending. There are some awesome battle scenes, showing some real heroism and bloody sword fights. I liked this movie - liked the story, enjoyed the actors and the acting, thought it was well done and enjoyable to watch. And looking at Tom Cruise all bulked up ain't too bad either. I would recommend you see this movie on the big screen while you can." (7.Dec.03)
2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall