Warner Bros. // 2003 // 154 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // July 11th, 2011
Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible: III) wielding a katana makes his way onto Blu-ray.
The Last Samurai was one of those movies that never quite grabbed me. This is odd because I love samurai movies, I've enjoyed director Edward Zwick's (Glory) other films, and Ken Watanabe (Inception) always brings his A game to a movie. So, I figured it was time to give it another shot.
The story begins with American Civil War veteran Nathan Algren (Cruise) finding his life spiraling into oblivion. When he isn't drinking himself into a stupor, he is haunted by his role in the slaughter of a tribe of Native Americans.
He is offered a job by Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn, Tarzan) to journey to Japan and aid in the training of the Japanese army in the use of rifles, cannons and other methods of modern warfare. Algren agrees because the pay is good and he hopes to leave his past behind him. Quicker than you can say Dances with Wolves Algren finds himself at the head of an unprepared army against a force of battle hardened samurai lead by the enigmatic Katsumoto (Watanabe). Algren's army is routed, and he is captured.
During his captivity he chats with Katsumoto and the two men learn more about their perspectives on life and war. Algren begins to find something spiritual about the way Katsumoto and his people live, and sees more ugliness in the modern world that the Emperor of Japan and his forces represent. It all builds to a climax where the way of the warrior faces down the way of the modern world. The only answers can be found in the blood of The Last Samurai.
I finally put my finger on what just doesn't work for me in this movie. Tom Cruise is too contemporary to fit into a period film. Something about his entire persona just feels modern. No matter how much he gets into the part, I'm still very aware that this is Tom Cruise. His acting in The Last Samurai is pretty good, but the disconnect I feel toward Algren is strong. When your audience has difficulty connecting with your lead character you've got a problem.
Luckily the rest of the film makes up for this. The production values are top notch, with amazing location shooting, costumes and sets that bring the Meiji period of Japan to life.
Zwick does a good job keeping the narrative moving for the entire 154 minutes. The editing is tight when it needs to be and allows the conversations to find their own pacing. The viewer gets a real feel for the world in which Algren finds himself. Contributing to this is some gorgeous cinematography by John Toll. Add the effective musical score by Hans Zimmer and you've got a movie with some serious creative merit.
I also have to mention the well staged and filmed action scenes. These are exciting and easy to follow. My favorite is the full blown ninja attack which keeps piling on the enemies and driving up the tension.
I know a few folks who find a big cultural hole in the story for The Last Samurai, something viewers not familiar with Japanese history might miss. The samurai culture is glorified to almost ridiculous extremes here. What is missing is the entirely feudal way the samurai class had complete and total control over the peasants. In many ways what the Japanese Emperor was attempting to bring was a modern lifestyle for all his people, not just the privileged samurai. Some of these lords could see value in this, but those who didn't rebelled in fear of losing the power they held. Shogun provides a closer approximation of what kind of power the samurai lords wielded before this period.
Warner Bros. delivers this beautiful looking film with an excellent 1080p transfer. Details on the costumes and sets are amazing to see in such clarity. I was also impressed with the 5.1 mix, balancing the dialogue, music and sound effects perfectly.
Included on the disc are all the extras found on the two disc standard editions and on the HD DVD versions. These include: a commentary track by the director, deleted scenes, documentaries, interviews with cast and crew, footage from the premieres and the theatrical trailer. So those looking to upgrade to Blu-ray can rest assured they won't lose any of the bonus content.
So I ended up where I started, with a movie that is well made, but not quite as effective as the creators hoped. The Last Samurai goes to show the power of casting the right actor for the right role.
Review content copyright © 2011 Roman Martel; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 154 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Wikipedia: Meiji Period