The Last Samurai: A Stunning Spectacle

I’ve always been a sucker for big historical epics. That said, I recently rewatched Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai, and was once again thoroughly impressed with it’s stunning spectacle. It’s a film that was largely overshadowed by another epic of the same year(Peter Weir’s Master and Commander) but I believe this is the better film.

The film has a premise not unlike Dances with Wolves. Cruise plays Capt. Nathan Algren, a disillusioned former army officer, who is hired by a Japanese official (Masato Harada) to help train its army. Japan in the last of the 1870’s was a country in transition as the old world and the new clashed in a violent rebellion by the samurai warriors. In the film, the samurai are led by General Katsumoto(Ken Watanabe), a noble man who refuses to modernize.

Algren is a mercenary, so the Japanese offer is tempting. He’s followed by his former superior officer, Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn). The two get into a disagreement over the readiness of the army, but it goes off to find Katsumoto anyways. The samurai obliterate the new conscripts, and Algren is captured.

Algren recovers from injury and spends the winter months in a samurai village. There he slowly comes to respect Katsumato and call him his friend. Despite Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada), one of the other smaurai leaders not taking kindly to him at first, Algren excells in sword training. He also begins to long for Taka (Koyuki), the sister of Katsumoto. The peace he finds in the village was not meant to last.

In the spring, Katsumato returns to the capital to argue his cause. He is arrested, but Algren helps free him and the rogue samurai’s flee setting up a last stand in the countryside. The samurai fight in the ancient ways, so not only are they hopelessly outnumbered – but also overmatched. Nonetheless, with their combined strategy Algren and Katsumato hold their own until the samurai make a suicidal charge into a withering fire of the first machine guns.

The film is very engaging. It grabs you early on and never lets go. Cruise is good, as is usual(I think his looks often obscure that he’s a terrific actor). The Japanese supporting cast is what really sells the picture though. Watanabe’s Oscar nomination was well deserved. The sets and costumes are amazing. They look like they were lifted straight from a history book. The cinematography is stunning, not only the battle sequences, but the countryside as well.

Though the film begins to fall apart in the last 10 minutes(the scene bet ween Cruise and the emperor is an eye roller), it’s still a terrific picture. One of the best of 2003.

4 stars out of 4

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