The Last Samurai

Braveheart with katanas and a short dude. Impressive battle scenes compensate for an all too familiar tale.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 12 Jan 2004 by Scott Morris
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As the nineteenth century rushes towards its inevitable conclusion the Emperor Meiji of Japan decides it's time to drag the country into the middle of the industrial revolution whether it likes it or not. The hiring of experts in all areas of industry and nation building leads to busy towns replacing sleepy villages, railroads springing up countrywide and all manner of state of the art bang-bangs being procured for the army. The intent is to replace the previous reliance on the Samurai as protectors of the nation, although the Emperor's adviser and head of the Samurai order Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) feels the Emperor is pursing these Western ideals at the expense of his own people and his own heritage. His faction of Samurai are in open revolt, hoping to change the Emperor's views through force of arms.

The young Emperor is convinced by his army of advisors, headed by the shifty Omura (Masato Harada) to hire in some genuine Yankee heroes to train their inexperienced conscripted army. Omura contacts U.S. Civil War veterans Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) and Sergeant Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly, sporting an early contender for The Most Utterly Appalling Largely Non-Geographical Accent Of The Year Award) and the now casually alcoholic Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), drinking away his perceived sins gained during a brutal slaughter of a settlement of Native Americans carried out of Bagley's orders. While Algren has little stomach for a new fight, an Emperor's ransom of cold, hard cash changes his mind.

After a very brief crash course in modern warfare and the tools thereof, Bagley orders an all out assault on Katsumoto's forces despite Algren's strident arguments and physical demonstrations that the inexperienced army simply aren't ready. He's right, and on their first engagement the conscripts panic and flee from Katsumoto's imposing forces. The only people putting up any real resistance are Gant and Algren. When their bullets run out, Gant is cut down. It's perhaps the loss of his best friend that spurs Algren's desperate and unlikely last stand, holding several better swordsman at bay and killing several with a cutlass that U.S. Army officers would typically use for little more than opening letters with. Anyhow, this display coupled with a previous portent convinces Katsumoto to capture the severely wounded Algren rather than kill him.

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He returns with Algren to his son Nobutada (Shin Koyamada)'s village where his wounds are tended to by the wife of one of the warriors Algren killed. Why exactly Taka (Koyuki) is charged with this duty seems to be mainly to fire up a love interest for the female demographic who have previously shied away from films with 100% macho killing throughout. With the mountain passes to the village snowed in for the winter, Algren is given all the time he needs to recuperate and absorb the idyllic, rose tinted visions of feudal Japanese life that surrounds him. In a community that seems to be full only of the positive aspects of Japanese culture it's not surprising that he grows fond of their ways, traditions and Taka. His respect of the Samurai ways leads to him learning many of their advanced swordsmanship and hand to hand combat skills, and conversations with Katsumoto leads him to respect his people and also himself, the scars on his psyche healing somewhat with the spiritual, peaceful side of their lives.

The months and occasional assassination attempt on Katsumoto pass, the snow melts and after a half hearted attempt at reconciliation the stage is set for a final glorious stand with lots and lots of very honourable death and killing and shooting and dying and killing. War. It's fantastic. After the swathes of War Being Hell movies, most recently Cold Mountain it's nice to see a movie that shows bloodletting in its proper, heroic crimson glory. It's perhaps not the most realistic depiction but hell, it's a lot more fun.

To be brutally honest, the actual story in The Last Samurai is at best bland and familiar, certainly to anyone who has seen Braveheart at some prior point. At worst it's horribly, horribly offensive. I can't imagine too many Japanese people being happy with the implication that they'd need some trumped up Yank to fell them how to fight having been refining the arts of war for nigh on a millennium. At least the underlying love story is subtly underplayed, in favour of the rather more exciting violent clashes between two opposing cultures from two different eras. The conclusion is as inevitable as it is obvious, no victories against overwhelming odds, just a death by the same codes the Samurai live by.

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Tom Cruise does his usual sterling job of hiding his slender stature and as such manages to pull of the flawed hero role better than I'd expected. His interaction with Taka's children is almost heart warming in places. Of the leads it's Ken Watanabe who provides the most intriguing role, even if it does follow the fairly familiar mysterious Eastern philosopher / codswallop-talker stereotype. As the villains of the piece, Masato Harada and Tony Goldwyn aren't truly effective in terms of you really hating them. Despite the desperate attempts to build these two as slimy, underhand characters it's not these two that do the majority of the dying, rather their conscripted armies who can't be held accountable for their leaders.

The real meat of this particular cinematic meal comes from the numerous and impressive battle scenes. The BBFC seem to have invoked the 'historical violence' clause meaning that this is a pretty brutal film for a 15 rated affair. While not quite as bloodthirsty as Braveheart, one of the most violent movies ever released, there's still a fair amount of cleaving and shooting going on here. While some of the head / body separations look about as realistic as the thought of actually finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the overall picture is of some very realistic and adrenaline charged battle scenes. If some of them evoke Braveheart, it's most likely because director Edward Zwick has had the nous to call on the services of John Toll for the cinematography. He uses some of his earlier tricks but bolstered by a larger budget and a far more exotic location the battles look far more splendid. Certainly the fearsome Samurai armour used has greater innate photogenics than kilts.

There's a majestic scale to the battles that's probably worth admission price alone, and Zwick keeps them at a frenetic pace that's never less than enjoyable. Sadly outside of the action the connecting story is predictable, bland and very occasionally hackneyed, saved only by some beautiful sets and locations. I can't fault the production values, but the script is pretty flawed and suffers from and ending that's directly from the Big Book of Cheesy Hollywood Happy Endings. Still, it has people getting chopped up by Samurai and people being gunned down by Gatling guns. It's essentially custom built to appeal to me at a purely visceral level. More well balanced people will probably be looking for the script to deliver more than it actually does and would be advised to knock this down a mark, but for big battle spectaculars it's up their with the best. I am very easily pleased.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Edward Zwick
Cast list:
Ken Watanabe (Katsumoto)
Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren)
Billy Connolly (Zebulon Gant)
Tony Goldwyn (Colonel Bagley)
Koyuki (Taka)
Masato Harada (Omura)
Masashi Odate (Omura's Companion)
John Koyama (Omura's Bodyguard)
Timothy Spall (Simon Graham)
Shichinosuke Nakamura (Emperor Meiji)
Togo Igawa (General Hasegawa)
Shin Koyamada (Nobutada)
Hiroyuki Sanada (Ujio)
Shun Sugata (Nakao)