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"The Last Samurai" - Movie Review

"The Last Samurai" - Movie Review

Genre:  Action, Drama

Rating:  R (for strong violence and battle sequences)

Release Date:  December 5, 2003

Actors:  Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Ken Watanabe, Koyuki, etc.

Director:  Edward Zwick

Special Notes:  Cruise worked for eight months to get in shape for the movie. He learned Kendo (Japanese swordsmanship), Japanese martial arts, how to handle other weapons and he learned Japanese. His horseback riding skills paid off, especially when he had to learn to fight on a horse.

Plot:  After taking part in a massacre during the Indian campaign, a disillusioned Capt. Nathan Algren (Cruise) drowns his regrets with alcohol and loathes the encroaching progress of the 19th century America that has dishonorably destroyed the old with the new. Across the ocean, the last Samurai leader in an ancient line of brave warriors, Katsumoto (Watanabe), finds himself battling not only the modern army of the young Emperor of Japan, but a westernized and trade-friendly culture that wants to eradicate the old ways of the Samurai. Algren’s reputation for being an expert marksman and killing Indians is legendary. He and an old foe who fought the Indian wars, Colonel Bagley (Goldwyn), are commissioned by the Emperor of Japan to train his army with modern weapons and techniques that will ultimately control and destroy the Samurai. During a fierce first encounter, the novice army is defeated and an injured Algren is taken prisoner to recuperate and live at Katsumoto’s camp in the mountains. As Algren slowly regains his strength, the prisoner becomes a student of the Samurai culture and unexpectedly goes through a spiritual rebirth where he regains honor and a new set of values for life. His unexpected odyssey ultimately leads him to a place where two eras and two very different worlds collide.  

Good:  I was engrossed in this compelling saga from the first frame to the last Samurai! Cruise and Watanabe deliver Oscar-worthy performances in an epic on the level of “Braveheart” or “Dances with Wolves.” Academy Award-winning director Edward Zwick (“Glory", “Legends of the Fall”) is bound to have another Oscar nomination for his brilliant portrayal of an era and people found only in the pages of history. Japan at the turn of the century is brimming with the mixture of old world alongside modern civilization. Frame after frame is illuminated with gorgeous scenery, pristine detail and colorful characters that create a palate of beauty amidst the battlefields of tragedy exploding onscreen in heroic detail. Cruise brilliantly portrays a man ravaged by alcohol and a conscience tormented with daily guilt about who he has become. I appreciate the fact that instead of resorting to a love scene for Cruise to create an emotional attachment to the character, the real dynamics and chemistry of the story come from his scenes with the people of the village, the children of Taka and his charismatic co-star Watanabe. This Japanese actor’s performance is so electrifying, his presence on-screen so powerful. The two stars create a unique synergy that propels the story. As I watched Watanabe almost steal the screen from Cruise, he reminded me of one of my favorite actors, Yul Brynner (“The King and I”). Algren lives with Katsumoto’s widowed sister Taka (Koyuki) and her children, who Algren unknowingly killed in battle. At first, she is understandably resistant to his presence but after a while, a loving relationship grows between the two -- one of respect and decency without any nudity or love scenes. There are several themes to this movie that deal with the importance of honor, valuing life, a moral code for living that involves a spiritual balance and a respect for mankind. The Samurai lived by a code called Bushido which means “the way of the warrior.” This way of life encompassed honesty and justice with no shades of gray -- courtesy even to enemies -- and heroic courage replaced fear with respect, caution, honor, compassion, sincerity, duty and loyalty. When you watch a movie filled with characters and situations that stand for these values, it’s not hard to see that these are basically biblical standards that are time-tested and will always represent the better side of man. Unfortunately, it's also a sad reminder of how far modern man has not only strayed but rationalized many of those values.

Bad:  The R rating is for violent battle scenes that show men being cut with Samurai swords as well as warriors being mowed down with machine guns and rifles. This movie is a realistic depiction of how the old-world way of fighting a war with swords on horseback collides with modern weapons, so it naturally lends itself to violent scenes of wartime battle. Bloody scenes of men being cut by the swords or shot are graphic but not gratuitous. In a couple of scenes men are beheaded because the Samurai believed it was an honorable thing to do. There’s not a lot of offensive language:  one religious profanity and a few exclamations of “Oh my God” along with some milder profanity in subtitles. And yes, much of the movie is in subtitles, but it never interferes with the story. In fact, it enhances the realism.

Bottom Line:  This is an adult epic adventure that will satisfy those who love a story of war, heroes, and men of honor and character. It captures a moment in time in the late 1800s when the modern 19th century was encroaching on traditions and a way of life that would forever be changed. Because of the intense battle scenes, this movie is for adults and possibly mature teens.