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Last Samurai, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 August 2006

Image “The Last Samurai” is a sweeping, sprawling epic devoted to character, a specific geographical location and a mindset locked in a moment of time. Tom Cruise stars as Captain Nathan Algren, a tortured soldier who served under Colonel George Armstrong Custer in the genocidal battles against the Cheyenne American Indians. During his time with Custer, Algren got to know the Cheyenne and grew to respect their way of life. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Bagley (played with surprising ease by Tony Goldwyn), Algren was responsible for the deaths of many American Indian women and children in an outright massacre.

Tormented and haunted by those memories, Algren has become a lost soul seeking solace in liquor. However, his life changes radically when he becomes part of a military detachment sent by the United States President to Japan, where American political and business interests hope to open up Japanese markets once they get the Japanese Emperor to sign agreements. It seems the Emperor is having trouble with samurai, who Bagley sums up as being the equivalent of savages standing in the way of progress just as the American Indians were.

When Algren journeys to Japan, he’s heading for the biggest upheaval his life has ever known. The story compares favorably to “Dances With Wolves” and “Braveheart” in that it combines the best of historical storytelling with Hollywood character, cinematography and recreation.

HD DVD Video: Presented in 1080i, the main feature is absolutely gorgeous. Shot primarily outdoors, with a lot of action and a lot of territory covered as well as plenty of acreage in a lot of the shots, as well as huge battles, the movie is a treat for the eyes. One of the most memorable shots is the sunset shot of Tom Cruise standing on a ridge steeped in reds and oranges with the black shadows of night steeping the mountain at his feet. The action movies from a large United States town to the crowded streets of Tokyo to the austere countryside and mountains. Every nuance of color radiates from the screen, drawing the viewer into the worlds that’s been created. HD DVD AUDIO: Although “The Last Samurai” doesn’t have a soundtrack that pumps through a Top 40 listing, the orchestral presentations are sweet and pure, backing up all the action or the stunning grandeur of the countryside. The clash and bang of battle, the cries of the wounded and the dying, all scream through a surround sound system and thump the subwoofer solidly. This is an HD DVD wired for sound, with good separations.

Tom Cruise turns in a solid performance as Nathan Algren. Of course, it helps that Cruise has those expressive eyes and can do a lot with just a look. The tortured character trying to escape a past or get out of a bad situation and the well-meaning nebbish that steps into trouble that’s way over his head is always a good fit for him. In real life, a man who’s been drinking and been in as many battles as Algren has wouldn’t look that good. Cruise, always a physical actor, does an outstanding job of picking up the martial arts he needed to handle for this movie.

A favorite in Asian theater for years, Ken Watanabe stars as Katsumoto, the last samurai leader who refuses to put aside the old ways and allow Western culture to pervade his country. “The Last Samurai” introduced Watanabe to the American audience, although he’d acted in several movies in his native country before getting offered the role. Watanabe also starred in “Batman Begins” as an assassin.

Koyuki, also introduced to American audiences for the first time in this film, does a great job as Taka, Katsumoto’s sister and wife of one of the men Algren slew in pitched battle. Her movements onscreen speak to the viewers as much as her soft voice and eyes. Everything about her advertises the Japanese culture.

Starring as Ujio, Hiroyuki Sanada plays one of Katsumoto’s lieutenants. He despises Algren at first and wants only to kill him, especially for killing Katsumoto’s brother-in-law. He’s also introduced to the American audience for the first time in this film.

Tony Goldwyn brings Colonel Bagley to life as a great villain. Where Japan’s Imperial Army and the samurais are shown as flip side of the same coin and can be hero or villain depending on perspective, Goldwyn’s presence onscreen triggers an almost instant dislike. Bagley is all about getting what he wants out of life, not thinking at all of the consequences of his actions.

Bits of comic relief as well as an edge to the political history shown in the movie, Timothy Spall stars as Britisher Simon Graham, a man who has constantly taken care of himself but has sympathies with the samurai.

Billy Connolly brings Sergeant Zebulon Gant to life, although much too briefly in the film. He plays as a fine, boisterous foil to Cruise’s drunken, tortured Algren.

The movie is an absolute treat visually. Starting in what looks like a real 19th century San Francisco, the story quickly moves across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. Bagley has arranged jobs there for Algren, who in turn brings Gant along. The Japanese emperor knows of Algren’s fighting ability and the fact that he rode with Custer and seems awed by that.

The sharp edge that Cruise has with the character reveals itself when he has an encounter with Bagley after offending the Japanese diplomat paying for his services. At this point, Algren doesn’t respect anyone, not even himself.

The arrival in Tokyo is nearly picture-perfect, presenting the packed streets filled with what is—to Algren, anyway—totally alien lands he couldn’t even guess imagined. Everything is unreal to him, beginning with the meeting with the Emperor. Where Bagley talks about how savage the Cheyenne were, Algren defends them, saying they were a very brave people.

On the training grounds, Algren barely controls his drinking enough to drill the troops he’s been given. One of the best elements is the voice-overs from Algren’s journal. They ring true and are poignant.

The battle scenes are truly some of the more striking images in the film. The first clash between the samurais and the Imperial Army grips the viewer and doesn’t let go. With the army forming a ragged line across the forest, especially after Algren has dramatically proven that they’re not ready to fight, the viewer has to wait anxiously for the clash to begin. The imagery of the trees, the horses, the gunpowder that creates clouds of smoke, the harsh crack of the rifles, the clangor of steel and the thudding hooves of the horses running at breakneck speed issuing all around the viewer through the surround sound system, the viewer can’t help but want to take cover.

The hand-to-hand fighting is grim and bloody, earning the R rating for the film. The orchestra plays throughout the sequence, and the movement of the music underscores everything, from the highs to the anxiety to the sudden low.

Cruise puts himself into the fight, showing a physical side of himself that demonstrates the months of hard work he put into getting into shape and the lengths he went to in order to make certain the fight choreography was right. The fight ties into the vision that Katsumoto had at the beginning of the movie, and it moves the samurai warlord not to have his enemy put to death even after he kills so many of his men.

Algren is taken captive and arrives in the samurai village. He’s cared for by Taka, the wife of the man that he killed in battle. Algren goes through alcohol withdrawal and finally gets on the other side of his injuries. But the story truly gets underway at that point.

Although the history of the samurai’s war with the Imperial Army is based in truth, the true history reflects that the samurai were not as good for the future of Japan as the movie would have a view believe. Although supportive of the young emperor, the samurai also believed that women should have no rights and that Western culture, except for the trade it brought, was also bad.

The movie has great pacing, building up the anxiety levels before the battles, then twisting them into gut-wrenching presentations as men fight and die by the dozens. The slower parts, when character and plot are interleaved, such as when Algren and Katsumoto first start knowing each other, are well-done and kept brief to keep the pacing moving steadily.

The special features are generous, with tons of material presented regarding the making of the film, the history involved, the costume and attention to detail and how hard Tom Cruise worked to pull it all together. In fact, EVERYONE mentions Cruise in a favorable light so much that some of the features gush and nearly turn into adoration bits. Most of the material is interesting and worth a look, as is the commentary. But it’s the story that truly wins viewers over.

Fans of “Dances With Wolves” and “Braveheart” will love this movie because it’s so rich in history and vibrant in atmosphere. Action fans won’t be disappointed either. Most of the battles are foreshadowed enough that viewers will see those coming, but the ninja attack while Algren is at the village and Katsumoto is revealing the more tender side him of himself is unexpected and chilling.

With the bloody battles so prevalent throughout the movie, “The Last Samurai” isn’t recommended for family viewing. Also, the 154-minute length is a lot to sit through after the kids have gone to sleep. Plan on watching this one over the weekend, or in two sittings. It actually breaks down quite nicely for that. People who love historical movies will definitely want to pick this one up, as will Tom Cruise fans because he does some of his best work here (or has a role that was tailor-made for him). For anyone simply wanting a movie worth the investment of a rental fee, this movie should be on the list. Great, solid entertainment with a cast most people have never seen before.

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