The Last Samurai


Directed by: Edward Zwick
Written by:John Logan, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall
Released: January 15, 2004
Grade: B

I’m finding The Last Samurai very difficult to swallow.  Even before seeing the film I had my doubts and I do hope these have not jeopardised my “impartial” review.  I can’t picture an American warrior going to Japan to teach them how to fight.  Whether this story is true or not, I am not sure since the website doesn’t provide much detail in that regard.  Perhaps there are elements of truth but in the end I didn’t find it at all interesting.

Our story begins in America where we meet Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise).  He fought gallantly in the Civil War but now the war is over, he’s struggling to find work and he’s become an alcoholic.  A friend comes to him with an opportunity and Algren is introduced to Omura (Harada), a close adviser to the Japanese Emperor.  There is division amongst the people of Japan and a small ancient group known as the Samurai have been caused the Council much grief.  They want a group of top American soldiers to train the Emperor’s army so they finally defeat the proud Samurai.

On their very first battle, the Emperor’s army is defeated and Algren is taken captive by Katsumoto (Watanabe), the leader of the Samurai.  Algren is not sure why his life has been spared but all is soon revealed.  There is a lot about the Japanese culture that Algren does not understand but as it becomes clearer to him, so too will his direction and path in life.

It’s a long, melodramatic film and I am none too pleased with the style that director Ed Zwick (Glory) has adopted.  The battle scenes feature the same tired slow motion shots, dramatic music and obvious sound effects.  And yes, even in the 1870s, it was somehow possible for one guy to kill about 10 others at once.  At least when they did this in Kill Bill it was funny.  Like his acting career of late, Tom Cruise gets way too many second chances.

Speaking of Cruise, I believe him to be miscast in this role.  I have seen Tom Cruise in some great films but his over-the-top passionate delivery and general good looks don’t suit this character.  Instantly coming to mind are several other actors who I believe could have been better.  The only benefit in having Cruise is that at least it creates more box-office security having a headline name in the title role.  In his first role in an English speaking movie, Ken Watanabe gives the film’s best performance as Katsumoto.

I’m very curious as to what the reactions to this film will be in Japan.  Director Zwick knows much about Japanese culture and has wanted to make this film since he was teenager but there looks to be too much of an American studio influence.  The “culture” that Zwick is trying to show isn’t coming through on screen.  Consequently, this will probably be the last time I see The Last Samurai.