Last Samurai, The (United States/New Zealand/Japan, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's a genuine pleasure to come across a motion picture like The Last Samurai - a rousing tale that combines high adventure with emotional effectiveness. This movie works because it never loses sight of the characters no matter how epic the scope becomes. With its grand, sweeping battle sequences, lush cinematography, and gripping storyline, The Last Samurai already has a spot reserved on my end-of-the-year Top 10 list. In one category or another, it is also likely to catch the Academy's interest this winter.

Director Edward Zwick may be one of the most underrated filmmakers currently working within the Hollywood system. Over the course of a roughly two-decade career, he has helmed a masterpiece (Glory) and two near-masterpieces (Courage Under Fire and this one), as well as several lesser but still compelling movies. Zwick has also been a big name in television, sharing responsibility with his producing partner, Marshall Herskovitz, for the critically-acclaimed series "thirtysomething" and "Once and Again." That kind of resume alone makes one optimistic about any project with which Zwick has involvement.

The Last Samurai opens in 1876 San Francisco, where Civil War hero Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is drowning his sorrows in booze. A warrior without a war to fight, Nathan spends his time shilling for a rifle company, making live appearances that pay him enough to afford his drink. That all changes when a delegation arrives from Japan, seeking to hire American army "heroes" to teach modern warfare to the Emperor's forces. A band of rebels, led by the samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), is threatening to derail a cross-country railroad being built by the Japanese government, so troops are needed to intervene. When offered an obscene amount of money for his aid, Nathan cannot refuse, so he joins his good friend, Sgt. Zebulah Grant (Billy Connolly), and his former commander (with whom he has "issues"), Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn), on the trip to Japan. As he writes in his diary, referring to the days when he and Bagly slaughtered Indians, "I am hired to once again stop the rebellion of another tribal leader - apparently the only job for which I am qualified."

Once in Japan, Nathan wastes no time teaching the art of firing rifles to his sad group of conscripts, but, when they are prematurely forced to face Katsumoto, they are unprepared. The engagement is a rout and Nathan is captured. Through the long winter of 1876 and into the spring of 1877, he is held captive in Katsumoto's mountain settlement. During that time, he engages in many conversations with the samurai leader, who is attempting to master English. He learns about the samurai way of life, develops an attraction to Katsumoto's sister, Taka (Koyuki), and improves his fighting skills. When ninjas attack, he battles alongside the samurai to defend the village. Thereafter, he is seen as an equal and no longer a captive. But a hard decision lies ahead - return to Tokyo and resume his commission or side with Katsumoto and face almost certain death.

The Last Samurai is singularly effective in bridging the gap between today and the 1870s. We are transported back through time more than a century and half-way across the globe. Zwick overcomes the language barrier by having Katsumoto be a student of English (that way, everything doesn't have to be subtitled). The battle sequences are frank and brutal, with none of the artistry and grace of many recent swordfighting movies. The Last Samurai is about heroes of a different sort. Zwick's influences are numerous and readily apparent. To one degree or another, he has borrowed from his own Glory, Mel Gibson's Braveheart, and the TV mini-series based on James Clavell's Shogun. But the most obvious homage is to the work of Akira Kurosawa, the great Japanese filmmaker who established his international reputation with movies about samurai and ronin. Kurosawa's Rashomon proved to be an influence for Zwick's Courage Under Fire. Here, the connection is more broad-based, with Ran and Seven Samurai particularly coming to mind. Had The Last Samurai been filmed four decades ago, one could easily see Kurosawa making it with the legendary Toshiro Mifune as Katsumoto.

In what should be seen as the ultimate compliment, Ken Watanabe (virtually unknown in the West) channels Mifune so forcefully that it's hard to envision anyone doing a better job as Katsumoto. Watanabe brings to the fore everything we expect to see in a great leader: strength, courage, patience, the ability to dominate a fight, and, above all, honor. Tom Cruise may be The Last Samurai's undisputed star, but Watanabe's performance is more memorable and more persuasive. It's not that Cruise does a bad job - he is a good enough actor to make us believe in Nathan - but Watanabe's work dominates. Strong support is provided by both English-speaking and Japanese actors. The lovely Koyuki plays Nathan's love interest; Hiroyuki Sanada is a fierce warrior who disagrees with Katsumoto's decision to keep the American alive; Timothy Spall is a British photojournalist; and Tony Goldwyn portrays Bagly with oily precision.

The movie's title foreshadows a tragic denouement, but that in no way lessens The Last Samurai's impact. The film is in many ways about the clash between the old ways (those of the samurai) and the new (those employed by the American-trained troops). While history makes the results predictable (six decades later, a thoroughly modern Japan would attack Pearl Harbor), it's our involvement with the characters and their situations that energizes the experience of sitting through this movie. The historical context may be established, but we don't know what happens to Nathan, Katsumoto, Taka, and others.

There is, of course, something exceptionally dramatic about stories in which a grossly outnumbered group puts up a valiant, albeit ultimately doomed, defense. That's the reason why historical battles like the Alamo and Thermopylae (which is explicitly referenced in The Last Samurai) have become legendary, and why films like Braveheart are so well-received. This element gives The Last Samurai much of its power and passion. It is in the grand storytelling tradition of the underdog achieving glory.

Shot by veteran cinematographer John Toll (who also photographed Braveheart and Zwick's own Legends of the Fall), The Last Samurai is never anything but amazing to look at. Since the dialogue is limited (a necessity because of the language gap), images gain additional importance. The battle sequences in particular are effectively captured, and the editor (Steven Rosenblum) does not reduce them to the level of incoherence by employing too many cuts. Hans Zimmer's score enhances the mood without becoming overbearing.

The Last Samurai earns every minute of its near two-and-one-half hour running length. There's no fat to trim, and no sense that scenes have been included to pad the ego of the director and/or his star. The Last Samurai is 144 minutes of pure story - the kind of powerful mix of epic battle and human interest that so rarely shows up on movie screens these days.

Last Samurai, The (United States/New Zealand/Japan, 2003)

Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2003
Run Time: 2:24
U.S. Release Date: 2003-12-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: Some English subtitled Japanese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1