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Last Samurai, The (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 05 December 2003
"The Last Samurai" clearly wants to be one of those great adventure movies that are solidly rooted in the main character, like "Dances with Wolves," "Braveheart" and "Gladiator." It even has one of the same writers as "Gladiator." It's a period piece, starting in 1876, features a central character who's confronted with harder tasks than he was expecting, and includes several spectacular battle scenes.

The movie is handsomely produced, clearly very expensive (locations included Japan, New Zealand and Burbank) with masses of extras. But it's not exactly an epic; the biggest battle scene, at the end, is certainly an epic one, but most of the film is set in a scenic hillside encampment in Japan. Although the film is populous, everything really pivots on only two characters, US Army Captain Nathan Algren and noble samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, who’s excellent with a lot of star power).

This, of course, is not inherently a weakness, but as presented here, it's also not a strength. The makers of the movie clearly wanted to create a relatively thoughtful movie that still features lots of action, and for many viewers--there was a lot of applause at the end of the press screening--it will work well for what it is.

And what it is is the movie equivalent of the kind of novel you read on the beach during the summer. It's a beautiful movie, clearly very well researched with lots of interesting period details; it holds your attention as you watch it, and even though the last reel should definitely have been left out, it delivers the goods on the level of forgettable entertainment.

But it loses elsewhere. If you've seen the poster with the image of a shouting Tom Cruise in red Samurai armor galloping toward the camera with an upraised sword you probably already know the plot. The script by John Logan (from "Gladiator"), Marshall Herskovitz and director Edward Zwick, explores new ground in terms of history, but in terms of plot, there's not a single surprise in the entire movie. It goes directly where you think it will without a single wavering from its obvious direction. Only the ending, which feels tacked on, offers any surprise -- and not a welcome one.

In 1876, Nelson Algren (Cruise), a hero of the Civil War and of battles with Indians in the previous ten years, is a drunk teetering on the edge of complete collapse. Cruise has some difficulties depicting weakness; at times, he seems instead to be a strong, courageous man feigning weakness, when he should seem like a warrior in search of a cause, a man groping for his lost honor. A spokesman for the Winchester arms company, he and his friend Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly), a former sergeant under Algren's command, are hired by wealthy Japanese businessman Omura (Masato Harada) to come to Japan to train the Emperor's army in battle tactics.
The main problem is respected Samurai Katsumoto, a political leader and former teacher to the young Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), who has been leading warriors in various attacks, including on the railway owned by Omura which has recently been installed.

One difficulty with the film is it isn't easy to understand Katsumoto's motivations. During this period, called the Meiji Restoration, Japan opened its doors to Western influence for the first time. Foreigners poured in, sleepy towns (like seaport Yokohama) turned into bustling centers of trade overnight. Some Japanese adopted Western dress, telephones were installed, and Japan seemed on the verge of losing its distinctive national character. There was a two-year Samurai Rebellion during this time; the movie gives us a condensed version of the uprising. But it doesn't tell us what Katsumoto and his followers want to happen. They're intelligent enough to know that the West has a lot to offer Japan, but the movie strongly suggests that Katsumoto and the others want to wipe out every trace of Western influence. Their soldiers are armed only with Samurai swords and bows. The movie wants us to endorse their reactionary goals without clearly showing us what they think they are losing by the influx of Western culture.

As usual in movies, the culture our disillusioned hero encounters is presented as an ideal, with none of the possible drawbacks even hinted at. Yes, the Bushido code emphasized courage, honor, truthfulness and compassion, but it was based on a feudal way of life, without any sense of equality. Even today, that's a hard-won principle in Japan.

A narrator tells us that in its legends, Japan was literally created by a sword. We see a warrior--Katsumoto--on a beautiful hillside dreaming of Samurai trying to defeat a fierce white tiger. In the U.S., the cynical Algren is offered the job, and soon comes to Japan. But the troops he is given to train are very green--most of them haven't even seen a rifle before, but are expected to become dead shots in a short time. In his first encounter with Katsumoto's army, his own men flee in terror, Gant is killed, and Algren himself is severely wounded.

Katsumoto watches Algren's courageous attempt to defend himself, seeing in the American the white tiger of his dreams. Even though Algren kills many warriors, including Katsumoto's brother-in-law, he has him taken captive rather than executed, and takes him back to his hillside home, essentially a small village. The middle half of the movie depicts Algren's slow recovery, and his beginning to realize that Katsumoto and his followers have found the muscular inner peace he's unconsciously been seeking himself.

He admires Katsumoto, who speaks English fluently, and is drawn to Katsumoto's sister Taka (Koyuki), widow of Katsumoto's brother-in-law. Algren begins training as a Samurai, learns Japanese, and even adopts Japanese garments. When a band of ninja sent by Omura attacks the settlement, Algren proves his worth as a warrior.

But then Katsumoto is summoned to Tokyo; he is still a member of the inner council, still respected by the boyish Emperor. And still a target of Uomo's schemes....

Several scenes tell us fleetingly that Algren is nearing suicide, or at least has ceased to value his life. But the script doesn't make enough of this, and his change of mind (one of the points of the movie) is not clearly dramatized. Cruise isn't a strong enough actor, at least not here, to make these changes clear, as did Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe before him. "The Last Samurai" is definitely a star vehicle, and Cruise is definitely the star; when he dons Samurai armor, he doesn't wear the traditional helmet--the audience has to see his handsome face.

There was room here for a movie more fascinating than this one has proved to be. For example, there's a British character, Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), who has adopted some elements of Japanese life, and who regards the encroachment of Western ways with suspicion. He respects Katsumoto and is fond of Algren, but realizes that the Samurai days are over. (He's also the narrator at the opening and closing, while Cruise narrates otherwise in quotes from Algren's journals, fictitious like the character himself.) This idea of understand the value of what's disappearing as well as that of what's arriving is essentially more interesting than the idea of an American soldier wholeheartedly adopting Samurai ways, but of course, it's less dramatic and doesn't provide for epic battle scenes.

There is something tragic, of course, about the Samurai Rebellion (the two words together are almost an oxymoron); all this nobility and pride plunging ahead into what can only be a disaster. A Samurai was all about a good death, and there are a lot of them in this movie. But it was the real end of their time, at least as it was, and there was some foolhardiness in their clinging to the old ways. The movie doesn't even hint at how the old ways might have been made new, but instead insists that the old ways are better than the new.

This is not the admirable if tragic tale that Zwick's earlier "Glory" was; in that, the men who fell died for a real cause, a noble one. "The Last Samurai" resembles "Glory" with a Southern hero at the head of the story: nobility in a lost cause. There can be nobility in a lost cause, but we should also understand why the cause would inevitably lose, and why the loss was still a sign of growth in the society. "The Last Samurai" doesn't even suggest this.

But most people who plunk down their money to see "The Last Samurai" won't be likely to care about all that serious stuff. They want to see handsome warriors waving swords and heroically charging into battle, led by movie star Tom Cruise. And in this are, "The Last Samurai" really delivers the goods. The widescreen photography by John Toll is spectacular, even quietly spectacular at times. There's a sense of weather (the story covers almost an entire year), with lots of rain and even some snow. The sets look weathered and handsome, the costumes are colorful within the bounds of realism. The whole movie looks researched to a fare-the-well; CGI effects realistically create period landscapes of San Francisco, Yokohama and Tokyo. The latter is especially interesting in an ironic way: these old Japanese shops with rows of telephone poles heavily bedecked with wires look like something from authentic old photos.

The battle scenes at the end are brilliantly staged and edited, with exemplary work from makeup effects crews--it's not too gruesome, but there are quick glimpses of swords through bodies, arrows plunging into eyes, bodies flung by exploding howitzer shells, decapitations and disembodied limbs. But it's all staged at top-bore speed, with none of the violence dwelled on even as it's not overlooked. The sound in these sequences is especially creative -- the singing of swords clashing in battle, the sound of rifle butts hitting bellies, what a deep sword wound both looks and sounds like. But most of the film is set on that beautiful hillside, with the sounds of rainfall, gentle breezes and birds singing in the trees.

"The Last Samurai" was a very expensive movie, and every dollar is visible on screen. It's a high, wide and handsome film; too bad it didn't go a little deeper into the setting and the characters.

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