After a surprisingly low-key advertising campaign, 'The Last Samurai' is finally here and it's well worth the wait. Zwicks has delivered a movie that's an epic in every sense of the word. From strong main characters to riveting action sequences, this movie delivers on all fronts.
Cruise play Captain Nathan Algren. A hero during the 'supression' of the Native Americans, he's become disillusioned with war after bearing witness to an atrocity committed by his superior officer. He's also become rather enamoured of the drink. Regardless, said superior officer recommends him for a job training an army for Imperial Japan. As the Emperor is anxious to industrialize, he's become quite taken with western ways. In response to the erosion of their tradiontal values, the samurai warrior class has risen against him. Eschewing firearms for more honourable blades and arrows and led by the charismatic Katsumoto (Watanabe), they are determined to hold on to Japan's traditions and culture.
After being commanded to lead his ill-trained conscripts against the samurai, Cruise finds himself captured by Katsumoto himself. Forced to spend the winter among the samurai, he becomes devoted to their way of life. Soon he is forced to choose between the culture he has abandoned, and the one has adopted.
There's actually a good amount of development of Cruise's character. Although he changes quite quickly out of deference to the timeline of the movie, it's an interesting journey which avoids boring the viewer. As a result of his character growth, the movie loses a little of it's intertia during the first half, but quickly regains it in the latter act. Aside from the two title characters, everyone else is pretty shallow. From Cruise's sterotypical superior officer to the ambitious and cowardly japanese advisor, the rest of the cast really just serves as window dressing for the interaction between Algren and Katsumoto.
Ken Watanabe does a superb job of playing Katsumoto. He manages to impart a full range of emotions without cracking his stoic samurai facade. Cruise doesn't fare as well in comparison, but his work is for the most part excellent. Zwick gets the most out of his actors, and weaves them seamlessly into his depiction of a Japan torn between two worlds.
This movie plays host to some very memorable actions scenes. It's not very often you get to see a samurai army taking to the field, or battle off a midnight attack by ninjas. The latter is great fun to watch, as the swordplay and fight choreography in general is top notch. There's a titanic battle at the end almost reminiscent of 'Braveheart'. It lasts a good while and manages to keep you on the edge of your seat. The close quarters fighting is particularly gruesome, but deftly manages to remain tasteful. If you can manage to tastefully disembowel someone with a katana, that is.
Extravagant production values help bring the movie to vivid and gorgeous life. The lavish costumes are showcased perfectly in the meticulously detailed samurai armor. It's a truly fearsome spectacle to watch the samurai ride out of the mist and slowly resolve into figures bedecked in fantastical armour. The scenery can only be described as jaw-dropping. From lush, rolling hills, to imagery of feudal Tokyo wrestling with coming industrialization, everything is a triumph of cinematography.
In general, 'The Last Samurai' seems to have a bit of an identify crisis. It seems unsure about whether it aims to be a semi-historical drama, or an action movie of unusual depth. In some sequences, it almost reeks of melodrama, as Zwick opts for slow motion cuts - and a Karate-kid like moment. In others, it seems to find it's footing building believable characters and launching into incredible action.
'The Last Samurai' is truly that rare movie that lives up to it's potential. From the opening frame to the closing shot, the films stands up as a feast for the eyes and imagination. Don't miss this one, if only for the ninjas.