say your piece

1594 DECEMBER 2003
Rich Visuals and Unlikely Cruise Performance Enhance 'The Last Samurai'
By Jeremy Mathews



While this picture makes "The Last Samuai" look a bit over serious as Tom Cruise prepares to stick-fight Goose, it's actually quite humorous.  

“The Last Samurai”
Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Edward Zwick
Written by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick
Produced by Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Tom Cruise, Paula Wag-ner, Scott Kroopf and Tom Engelman

Starring Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada and Koyuki
Rated R
(out of four)

“The Last Samurai” com-bines rich visuals with strong performanc-es—including one of Tom Cruise’s best—so that whether or not you agree with the film’s thoughts on war, you can’t help but enjoy its affecting drama.

Director Edward Zwick, known for films about nobility in war like “Glory,” presents a story about a man who associates with his tra-ditional enemy and finds a more respectable, redeeming way to engage in combat.

Cruise plays Nathan Algren, an American Civil War veteran whose study of the American Indians’ cultural background and military format helped the U.S. Army defeat them. Disillusioned and depressed in the years since, he has descend-ed into alcoholism and insignifi-cant work.

The film introduces him as a war hero peddling guns in a travel-ing show—in a gloriously drunk way. Fired from that job, he accepts an offer from his arrogant former commander, whom he despises, to work in the military again.

The assignment: Go to Japan, where America has much to gain from selling its new technology, study the traditionalist samu-rai tribes who want to stop this cultural annihilation and train an army of inexperienced Japanese men to defeat the traditionalist samurai army—whose members have been training their entire lives—by means of fancy weap-ons.

Algren isn’t particularly excited about helping annihilate another noble culture, but he agrees be-cause he needs the money to feed his alcoholism.

I admit that from the poster and concept of the film, I didn’t think this sounded like a particularly well-suited role for Cruise’s star persona, but he fits into the part nicely. He never seems like a star waxing dramatic, but transforms himself into this scarred, alcoholic character.

The film opens with a fascinat-ing extended setup that con-tributes to a near-epic length of two hours and 20 minutes. The material never drags, with the exception of a slightly overdone battle sequence that ends the film. It’s interesting background and character development that makes the action all the more exciting. Timothy Spall plays an English-man who is fascinated with the culture while he helps arrange for the emperor to do away with it. He shows Algren and company around the city and teaches them how to treat the young emperor, who is considered to be a deity.

After engaging in a disastrous battle that Algren correctly in-sisted Japan’s army wasn’t ready for, the traditionalists take Algren captive. The samurai leader Katsu-moto (Ken Watanabe) spares his life due to his impressive self-defense when outnumbered by several samurai.
While there are big battle scenes, the film finds strong action in the simple quest for self actual-ization. Zwick creates a suspense-ful sequence as Algren tries to master the ways of swordfighting in the village, constantly being defeated.

He also learns about the culture through increasingly open and amusing conversations with Katsumoto. While films often depict leaders of traditional tribes as overly serious and dry, Wata-nabe plays the samurai leader as a bemused, witty man, eager to learn about his opponent’s culture. He and Algren are both intelligent and funny, and their thoughts about life and war are actually worth hearing.

The sexual tension between Cruise and the village woman he’s living with grows a bit un-necessary as the film progresses. Fortunately, the plotline doesn’t receive very much screen time and therefore doesn’t distract.

Zwick’s direction bursts with passion and sharp visual work. In one scene, Algren realizes how in tune he’s become with himself after a fast-paced fight, reliving it in slow motion.

John Toll’s cinematography beautifully displays the detailed production design by Lilly Kilvert. The beautiful village, the city and the costumes are a combination of color, charm and nostalgia.

The film fully enters its world with a fresh perspective on what could have been a tired topic.

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