The Last Samurai (2003)
USA / English
"In the face of an enemy, in the Heart of One Man, Lies the Soul of a Warrior. "An American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy after he is captured in battle.
Pretty damn good.
In the hands of a great filmmaker, "The Last Samurai" could have been a
film. As it is, it's a good film -- at times even a very good film --
certainly no small achievement.
Director Ed Zwick, of course, is no David Lean -- though "Glory" and
Under Fire" are excellent films ("Legends of the Fall" is decent, while I
"Leaving Normal" one of the most mundane films ever made). Here Zwick
attempted a traditional epic, and as with "Courage Under Fire", depicts
horrors of war through a story of personal redemption. Into this basic
also injects themes of honor, pride, cultural clashes and technological
versus ancient tradition.
Unfortunately, though, no matter how lofty the ambitions, the bottom line
that in order to transcend the fairly standard
undergoes-change plot that we've all seen many times before, something
new and special has to be added. It's a little late to rehash the old
"Emerald Forest"/"Dances With Wolves" tale of the white man being
enemies and siding with his captors -- unless it's aimed primarily at
have never seen "The Searchers" or "The Emerald Forest" (Arthur Penn
this thirty years ago, and made the hero and the journey of "Little Big
primarily comedic -- one of the main reasons the film works as well as it
But in the post-Altman/Ashby/Penn era -- where nearly all films --
action/adventure films -- have returned to the grandiose seriousness of
1950s counterparts (with little or none of the wit and satire that crept
the 60s and 70s), it is therefore pretty much expected that we will get
grandiose, serious, high-gloss and overlong treatment all the way
very little humor. And that's too bad. Because a lighter touch could
long way towards getting the audience more involved, and making Cruise's
character more likable (indeed, the few humorous lines and scenes he has
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
is going to miss its target of becoming a beloved classic, an
epic for the ages. Just as Sam Mendes did with "Road to Perdition,"
tried a little too hard to impress. By pouring on the big, movie-type
merely reminds us that he's emulating the greatness of classic directors,
ever equaling them. Zwick -- as I'm sure he will readily admit -- is
student of great filmmakers such as Lean or Kurosawa; he will likely
one himself. The sensibility just isn't there, the life experience is
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
who danced around in his underwear. The grinning jock with the big nose
"Top Gun." The goofball pool hustler from "The Color of Money." The
between someone like Cruise (or De Niro, or any of today's top stars) and
complex personality such as Stewart or Fonda or Bogart or Gable is simply
immeasurable. The heart and soul of those great actors is somehow
from most of today's performers. So by making a film like "The Last
an old-fashioned, traditional way, it constantly invites comparison -- to
stars, to great directors, to the great age of studio filmmaking which,
Samurai, is now gone -- never to return.
The sad fact is that the great movie-makers are dying off, leaving us
imitators, not originators. In the last ten years we've lost Fellini,
Kubrick, Wilder, Frankenheimer, Fuller. In the last six months alone we
John Schlesinger and Elia Kazan. Is anyone really expecting to see some
of masterpiece by a T.V. producer/director named Ed Zwick?!
Still, "The Last Samurai" manages to succeed in a number of ways --
presenting nineteenth-century Japan in a remarkably realistic way, and in
brutal battle scenes, shot in gory "Braveheart"-style by the great
cinematographer John Toll. It is in these terrifying, agonizing moments
sword-versus-rifle battle that Zwick comes closest to emulating his
Akira Kurosawa, and manages to comment on the tragedy and insanity of
Flashbacks are used unnecessarily to try to enforce Cruise's sense of
participating in the the slaughter of the Indians (so we will understand
to defend another endangered species, the Samurai). As the apparent
character, Ken Watanabe pretty much steals the show as Katsumodo, the
warrior leader whom Cruise befriends. A Japanese actress known only as
Koyuki plays the heartbreakingly beautiful wife of a Samurai Cruise
Cruise grows close to. But perhaps most amazing of the Japanese cast is
small boy who plays one of her sons. Unexpectedly expressive, emotional,
charming, he's the type of face you would expect to see in a film by the
Kurosawa. Or Lean. Or Ford.
All technical aspects, from production and costume design to visual
excellent. Hans Zimmer's score, incorporating traditional wood flutes
thunderous drums, is at times touching and evocative, at times bombastic
unnecessarily loud. All in all, "The Last Samurai" is an impressive
And even if it misses being the cinematic classic it strives towards,
can be proud of their accomplishment.
And whatever its faults, it's almost a miracle when a Hollywood studio
turns out something even a fraction this good.
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