The Last Samurai

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The Last Samurai
Review (7.5/10)
(By Brendan Cullin)

Captain Nathan Algren's (Tom Cruise) life is a mess. He has no money. He drinks till the cows come home. The one-time Civil War hero has stooped to promoting Winchester rifles for money. And he is haunted by shameful actions from his past - which probably at least partially accounts for his drinking problems. Algren is offered a job in Japan where he and a few fellow Americans will train an inexperienced Japanese army in the art of modern warfare. This army will then be used to squash a Samurai uprising that has been preventing the "modernization" of Japan and the construction of the country's first railroad system. In the ensuing battle, Algren is captured by the Samurai, where the tribe's leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) sees something in Algren that he likes. Soon Algren is taught the way of the Samurai - living by the sword, living with your mind and living with honour.

In doing a bit of research on The Last Samurai, I came across the following quotes being associated with the movie - "The Best Movie of All Time", "The Best Movie of the Decade", "One of the most powerful movies I've ever seen" and "In a word, poetic". One person also said "Lame" and an interesting one was "Braveheart meets Seven Years in Tibet". I think calling The Last Samurai the best movie of all time might be stretching it a bit. Lame? It is not a lame movie. The Braveheart/Seven Years in Tibet analogy? Sort of funny and I guess when you think about it, I could see where that came from. I actually had thoughts of both movies while watching Samurai. Especially Braveheart, a movie which, in many ways, has set the benchmark for all epic battle movies that will follow. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Samurai, I would not say it is in the same league as Braveheart.

Samurai lacked the raw emotion elicited from a movie like Braveheart. Although Samurai is an emotional roller coaster of a movie, there were times when the movie was a bit slow. In the end, you do cheer for the samurai. You do respect the samurai. You may even shed a tear for the samurai. But Tom Cruise's Nathan Algren will not leave the lasting impression that Mel Gibson's William Wallace has left on many of us. Algren was a good character - his interaction with the children in the samurai village was excellent; he had some genuinely funny moments in the movie; and he had really good hair (but a bad beard), as opposed to Wallace's terrible hairdo. But in the end, I found Algren scowled way too much. He could have smiled and laughed a few times between the beatings he took. He had a pained look on his face for much of the movie. He looked like he was passing a kidney stone way too often. I liked Algren and I respected him but didn't connect with him like I would have liked. Plus, I found his love story a bit strange. The love story was a very minor part of the movie, but not a totally believable story. Under the circumstances I am not too sure how the Japanese woman fell for Algren. It would have been more believable if maybe she would have slit his throat in the middle of the night, or at least tried to do that. On the other hand, in Braveheart, William Wallace had two genuine love interests and threw some one-liners at them that had me falling for him. To this day, I still try some of those lines on various women, unsuccessfully I might add. Which leads me to another problem I had with Samurai, the dialogue. I found at times, the dialogue to be a bit weak and shallow. There were not many deep, inspiring conversations. There were many moments of silence, many appropriate, given the way of the samurai, but other times, we could have used a rally speech or something to that effect.

But despite the weak dialogue, at times, The Last Samurai did manage to have some very intense moments. Algren's capture, Algren being beaten by sticks, the final battle scene - they were all outstanding moments in this movie. The final battle scene was also one to behold - both intelligent and intense. The end of the battle was brilliant. Without getting into too much detail or ruining the movie for anyone, I loved what they did here. They showed us that this movie was not about Nathan Algren, Tom Cruise or anything like that. They showed us that this movie was about Katsumoto and the samurai. What a great moment in the movie.

Visually, The Last Samurai is a wonderful movie. It's cinematography is outstanding. The recreation of 1876 Japan, although I was never there or have never been to present-day Japan for that matter, is everything I could imagine it to be. The movie portrays a certain calmness in the Japanese countryside, a feeling that is reflective of the lifestyle of the samurai - when they are not kicking some serious ass, that is. The battlewear of the samurai was also quite awe-inspiring. But this movie had more to it than the look and the feel. At many times, it had a majestic feel to it, a feeling that can be directly attributed to the outstanding performance of Ken Watanabe. He plays the samurai warrior to perfection. Watanabe's Katsumoto was a man who was respected by all - including his arch enemies. He said few words but in many scenes his eyes did the talking. The character Watanabe brought to this movie earned every ounce of this respect.

In the end, I will say that I really, really liked The Last Samurai. There was much to like and love about this movie, but in no way did I walk out of this movie thinking I had just seen one of the best movies of all-time. The best movie of the year? Well, one of them. I don't think it is a shoe-in to win the Oscar, yet. If anything, Ken Watanabe at least deserves a nomination. Any emotion that was felt could be directly linked to Katsumoto. Cruise had a couple of good moments (once again, the scene of him being beaten down with the wooden sticks comes to mind) but his effect on this movie paled in comparison to Watanabe's. I also really liked the dude who played Katsumoto's right hand man and trusty general. He's the guy who kept beating down Cruise with the wooden stick. Unfortunately, I am not too sure of his name, but he was another character who's actions and eyes far outweighed the words he said in the movie.

Seeing The Last Samurai reminded me a lot of last year, when I went to another movie with high expectations, Gangs of New York. I left that movie disappointed. I went into The Last Samurai with similar lofty expectations but left the theatre very satisfied. I knew what I had just seen was a well-directed, well-written, well-acted piece of cinema. Not the greatest ever, but certainly well worth seeing and certainly one of the best movies of the year.
 

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