Our Judge Dennis Prince is perfectly content with his experiences in the martial arts although he doesn't mask his disappointment that his Sensei wouldn't let him play with swords.
In the face of an enemy, in the heart of one man, lies the soul of a warrior.
Oh, please. Let me fall on my sword now.
Tom Cruise fans unite! Here is the epitome piece—epic in scale—that depicts "the Tom" like never before. Yes, Tom is big box office. Yes, Tom is candidly outspoken. And, well, Tom is more than happy to have an excellent film's marketing campaign revolve singularly around…(can you guess?)…TOM!
Oh, and if you have a passion for well-crafted historical pieces that celebrate the mystifying heritage of ancient Japan, just try to look past Tom to see an incredible story that was almost missed.
Facts of the Case
Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise, All the Right Moves) is a Civil War hero, a captain who led the forces in blue to suppress the savage Indians. He's been decorated and celebrated, but, now, he's all but crawled into a bottle of whiskey, happy to drown himself in a tepid pool of his own personal despair. He must sober up, though, because a Japanese general has requested Algren to train a Japanese army in order that they may squelch out the Samurai. With greed in his eyes, he accepts the job but is soon captured by the very Samurai he was chartered to defeat. Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins) has chosen to spare Algren's life on the field of battle, opting to detain and study his enemy. In time, Algren learns the depth and utter harmony of the Bushido way. Realizing that Katsumoto truly wishes to serve Japan's Emperor far beyond that of the self-serving and opposing Omura (Masato Harada), Algren pledges his allegiance to help Katsumoto uphold the spirit and honor of the Samurai.
Truthfully, this is an exquisite motion picture…almost ruined. While the bonus features on the disc will gloatingly profess actor-producer Cruise's determination to educate America to the noble ways of the Samurai, in the end it serves as another vehicle for the disruptive star to further his personal interests. Harsh? Perhaps, and there's no purpose in attempting to deride Cruise's performance, that which is certainly one of his best and most complex to date. The trouble, however, is that Cruise seems unwilling to step aside from the spotlight, always maintaining his "Cruise-persona" for the cameras, almost to the detriment of this compelling tale.
Cruise, as one of many producers on hand here, certainly has a passion for the subject matter and dives into it with sincerity. Assembled here is an excellent cast of Japanese actors, led by the mesmerizing Ken Watanabe and the lyrically adrift Koyuki as Taka. All are to be commended for unwavering believability in their performances. But Tom steps in front and, sadly, reminds us that this is his movie, about him. He's a Hollywood mover and shaker, that's for sure, but he could take a note from his more mature peer, Clint Eastwood, and realize that sometimes the picture's better without him. Minus Cruise, this film could have reached its highest aspiration. Had a lesser-known—even unknown—face been cast as Algren, this narrative would truly have been breathtaking. The character of Algren is pivotal, of course, since he adds the needed exposition of an American seeing and learning of the Samurai. The story could have delivered mightily in its purpose if Algren was embodied by a stranger to the audience and one through whom the audience could experience the mystery and majesty of Meiji Japan. We should thank Tom, of course, for helping to usher forth this incredible experience, full of awesome scenery and beautiful camera work with a style that allows us to ponder the images in front of us (thankfully, the film does not succumb to the sort of quick-cut nausea that afflicts far too many features these days). But, Tom is always there, from the moment we see the film's one-sheet (or the DVD case), until the literal final frame. This is Tom's movie, and we are not to forget that.
Alas, despite his adamant proclamations of the fervent adherence to details and historical accuracy, Tom's picture commits the easiest-to-spot transgression: he cheapens the honor of the Bushido way and the Samurai warrior by insisting—within the plot and as spoken by the character of Algren himself—that the Eastern belief in destiny should be skewed and overcome, deferring to a Western mentality, instead. What?! Through an insufferable bit of Hollywood-style machismo, Algren all but rebukes Matsumoto for his readiness to die in glory as he sees fit. Concurrently, Algren/Cruise waves off Eastern honor and tradition in a dime-store cowboy moment that seems to say, "spit in the eye of yer foe, and keep on goin' on, hombre." Again, it's a tremendous motion picture that tries so hard to shoot itself in the foot.
The real story here, though, is that The Last Samurai is among the first titles to be issued in the dazzling new HD DVD format. Released concurrently with the Toshiba HD DVD players (the HD-1A and slightly up-scaled HD-X1A), this was one of two titles offered by Warner Brothers to help launch the new technology. Is it worth it? Yes, absolutely. In this particular disc, you'll find an image quality that has yet to be seen in even the best standard-definition offering, no matter if that content were enhanced through an HD upconverting player. No, here you'll see astounding detail in practically every scene. The wide-angle view of the ship sailing into Hasegawa Bay is worthy of replay just for the amazing amount of visual information to be seen. Enthusiasts of Japanese battle dress will likewise be captivated by the remarkably refined textures and nuances of the warriors' gear. Although much of the film is presented through the atmospherically hazy mist that surrounds the rainy Samurai village, the sunlit battle scenes are stunning. While not desiring to employ every visual hyperbole available, the picture quality here is just wonderful, really. The color is very smooth and even and flesh tones look spot on when displayed on a fully calibrated HD panel. There were no visible compression artifacts whatsoever.
The other half of HD DVD's goodness comes by way of the significantly improved Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track. The soundstage here is certainly expanded with all channels getting a vigorous yet never overdone workout. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible while directional effects will bring a smile to your face (whether arrows zinging past you or thunderheads growling over your shoulder). Hans Zimmer's terrific score is also well represented throughout, never upstaged by nor ever imposing on the balance of the audio elements.
As for extras, Warner Brothers has gathered up and brought along the copious features previously found in the two-disc standard-definition release. These include director Edward Zwick's informative audio commentary, a glowing feature originally presented on The History Channel, a couple of intriguing deleted scenes, and a somewhat overindulgent offering of five featurettes. Zwick's video journal is also here as is the theatrical trailer. All of these features can be accessed via the HD interactive menu, available for navigation while the feature film runs concurrently.
The only technical issues encountered during this screening were a couple of instances of freeze-frame and subsequent asynchronous video-audio playback (this is due, usually, to a slightly dirty disc and can be corrected by merely pausing and un-pausing the playback to restore synchronization).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you simply adore Tom, then you won't be disappointed. Again, his acting is not at issue here nor is his ego, generally. Rather, its his judgment that is being questioned as it seems curious he couldn't see a glorious picture that would have been best viewed from his vantage point off camera. Perhaps you disagree. That is fine, too.
The Last Samurai is of epic proportions, that's for certain. It's compelling, heart wrenching, and fully entertaining. Tom Cruise's inclusion is up for grabs, really, since the picture can certainly achieve despite him and could arguably excel without him. No matter because this one comes highly recommended—especially in enhanced HD DVD format.
Due to the overwhelming impact of the excellent story here, Tom Cruise and this film's attempts to Westernize a revered culture can be overlooked.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Edward Zwick
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