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In the 1870s, Captain Nathan Algren, a cynical veteran of the American Civil war who will work for anyone, is hired by Americans who want lucrative contracts with the Emperor of Japan to train the peasant conscripts for the first standing imperial army in modern warfare using firearms. The imperial Omura cabinet's first priority is to repress a rebellion of traditionalist Samurai -hereditary warriors- who remain devoted to the sacred dynasty but reject the Westernizing policy and even refuse firearms. Yet when his ill-prepared superior force sets out too soon, their panic allows the sword-wielding samurai to crush them. Badly wounded Algren's courageous stand makes the samurai leader Katsumoto spare his life; once nursed to health he learns to know and respect the old Japanese way, and participates as advisor in Katsumoto's failed attempt to save the Bushido tradition, but Omura gets repressive laws enacted- he must now choose to honor his loyalty to one of the embittered sides when ... Written by
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They say Japan was made by a sword. They say the old gods dipped a coral blade into the ocean, and when they pulled it out four perfect drops fell back into the sea, and those drops became the islands of Japan. I say, Japan was made by a handful of brave men. Warriors, willing to give their lives for what seems to have become a forgotten word: honor.
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In the hands of a great filmmaker, "The Last Samurai" could have been a great film. As it is, it's a good film -- at times even a very good film -- and that's certainly no small achievement.
Director Ed Zwick, of course, is no David Lean -- though "Glory" and "Courage Under Fire" are excellent films ("Legends of the Fall" is decent, while I consider "Leaving Normal" one of the most mundane films ever made). Here Zwick has attempted a traditional epic, and as with "Courage Under Fire", depicts the horrors of war through a story of personal redemption. Into this basic story he also injects themes of honor, pride, cultural clashes and technological change versus ancient tradition.
Unfortunately, though, no matter how lofty the ambitions, the bottom line here is that in order to transcend the fairly standard hero-goes-on-a-journey-and- undergoes-change plot that we've all seen many times before, something pretty new and special has to be added. It's a little late to rehash the old "Searchers"/ "Emerald Forest"/"Dances With Wolves" tale of the white man being captured by enemies and siding with his captors -- unless it's aimed primarily at people who have never seen "The Searchers" or "The Emerald Forest" (Arthur Penn realized this thirty years ago, and made the hero and the journey of "Little Big Man" primarily comedic -- one of the main reasons the film works as well as it does).
But in the post-Altman/Ashby/Penn era -- where nearly all films -- especially action/adventure films -- have returned to the grandiose seriousness of their 1950s counterparts (with little or none of the wit and satire that crept through in the 60s and 70s), it is therefore pretty much expected that we will get the typical grandiose, serious, high-gloss and overlong treatment all the way through, with very little humor. And that's too bad. Because a lighter touch could have gone a long way towards getting the audience more involved, and making Cruise's character more likable (indeed, the few humorous lines and scenes he has are among the film's most memorable moments; they humanize his character and endear us to him).
And this is one reason "The Last Samurai," despite a bunch of probable Oscars, is going to miss its target of becoming a beloved classic, an action/adventure epic for the ages. Just as Sam Mendes did with "Road to Perdition," Zwick has tried a little too hard to impress. By pouring on the big, movie-type moments, he merely reminds us that he's emulating the greatness of classic directors, without ever equaling them. Zwick -- as I'm sure he will readily admit -- is merely a student of great filmmakers such as Lean or Kurosawa; he will likely never be one himself. The sensibility just isn't there, the life experience is missing.
Cruise, similarly -- despite his talent -- will never be any kind of substitute for a Flynn or a Gable or a Bogart; Cruise is, after all, the kid from "Risky Business" who danced around in his underwear. The grinning jock with the big nose from "Top Gun." The goofball pool hustler from "The Color of Money." The difference between someone like Cruise (or De Niro, or any of today's top stars) and a complex personality such as Stewart or Fonda or Bogart or Gable is simply immeasurable. The heart and soul of those great actors is somehow missing from most of today's performers. So by making a film like "The Last Samurai" in an old-fashioned, traditional way, it constantly invites comparison -- to great stars, to great directors, to the great age of studio filmmaking which, like the Samurai, is now gone -- never to return.
The sad fact is that the great movie-makers are dying off, leaving us with imitators, not originators. In the last ten years we've lost Fellini, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Wilder, Frankenheimer, Fuller. In the last six months alone we lost John Schlesinger and Elia Kazan. Is anyone really expecting to see some sort of masterpiece by a T.V. producer/director named Ed Zwick?!
Still, "The Last Samurai" manages to succeed in a number of ways -- mainly in presenting nineteenth-century Japan in a remarkably realistic way, and in its brutal battle scenes, shot in gory "Braveheart"-style by the great cinematographer John Toll. It is in these terrifying, agonizing moments of sword-versus-rifle battle that Zwick comes closest to emulating his obvious hero, Akira Kurosawa, and manages to comment on the tragedy and insanity of war.
Flashbacks are used unnecessarily to try to enforce Cruise's sense of guilt in participating in the the slaughter of the Indians (so we will understand his desire to defend another endangered species, the Samurai). As the apparent title character, Ken Watanabe pretty much steals the show as Katsumodo, the sage warrior leader whom Cruise befriends. A Japanese actress known only as Koyuki plays the heartbreakingly beautiful wife of a Samurai Cruise kills, who Cruise grows close to. But perhaps most amazing of the Japanese cast is the small boy who plays one of her sons. Unexpectedly expressive, emotional, and charming, he's the type of face you would expect to see in a film by the great Kurosawa. Or Lean. Or Ford.
All technical aspects, from production and costume design to visual effects, are excellent. Hans Zimmer's score, incorporating traditional wood flutes and thunderous drums, is at times touching and evocative, at times bombastic and unnecessarily loud. All in all, "The Last Samurai" is an impressive production. And even if it misses being the cinematic classic it strives towards, all involved can be proud of their accomplishment.
And whatever its faults, it's almost a miracle when a Hollywood studio today turns out something even a fraction this good.
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