From the Vault #2: THE LAST SAMURAI (2003)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from April 15th, 2014…

The honour and code of the samurai has always been enticing to a Western civilisation that is far removed from such customs, which perhaps makes The Last Samurai such an enticing, enigmatic film.

Edward Zwick crafts quite an epic adventure rich in mythology & thematic resonance that while traditionally Hollywood in its construction still manages to exist a cut above many such movies of its ilk, a touch of class surrounding how the story of Captain Nathan Algren is put together, based as it is on several real life legendary American figures who played key roles in the Satsuma Rebellion in Japan during the late 19th century. This isn’t a direct re-telling of those events but serves as a leaping off point to construct a tale about a stranger in a strange land, of a man haunted by fighting an unjust war who rediscovers his honour & place in the world through a dying culture.

Zwick’s film is slick, sweeping, beautifully shot and frequently involving, backed up by a strong performance by Tom Cruise in one of those roles that remind you just what a good actor he can be.

In the role of Algren, Cruise begins a dejected man living out of a bottle, bereft of purpose & suffering post-Civil War nightmares of a man touted as a hero despite feeling the guilt of slaughtering Indians crushed under the might of a military machine; in that sense, The Last Samurai is very anti-war in its message, John Logan’s story painting the Americans and specifically the Imperialist Japanese not in the greatest light.

Cruise takes Algren on a traditional voyage of discovery, first pitted against the samurai code & eventually becoming consumed by it, consumed by the similarity of the way of the warrior between both cultures – and Ken Watanabe’s dignified samurai ‘rebel’ Katsumoto learns from him, as well as the other way around, with Cruise remaining stoic & only getting flashes of a chance to display the usual Cruise charm, but that’s ok – Algren isn’t the kind of character to benefit from that, Cruise’s natural magnetism is enough here.

Wit is provided thankfully through, albeit briefly, Billy Connolly as a tough old Irish veteran & chiefly Timothy Spall as our portly ‘narrator’ of sorts, who serves to help mythologise Algren & the legend itself. Zwick is most concerned with that, you see, the idea of legends and how men become them, exploring that concept alongside digging into the cultural rituals and practices of a changing Japan.

Logan’s story is placed at a time when the old ways of Japan were shifting, under the pressures of global politics & business; the Emperor here is a naive young man, sitting on an empty throne, looking to Watanabe for validation as his advisors push to quash a rebellion fighting to preserve the old ways, preserve Japanese interests as America knocks on the door. That’s why Cruise’s role here is so interesting, his character learning of the samurai code & helping those around him remember their history, and Zwick explores well the concept of national identity alongside personal ideas of myth, legend & destiny.

It all boils together in a careful script, never overblown, which neatly develops the relationships involved & helps you fully believe Algren’s transformation into the eponymous ‘last samurai’. Along the way, Zwick doesn’t forget theatrics – staging plenty of well staged & intense fight scenes which utilise the strong Japanese production design, before building to a quite epic war climax with army pitted against army, with personal stakes cutting through it, backed up indeed by another superlative score by Hans Zimmer. It becomes more than just a historical swords & armour film, reaching deeper on several levels.

What could have been a slow paced, potentially ponderous movie is avoided well by Edward Zwick, who with The Last Samurai delivers one of the stronger historical adventure epics of recent years. Beautifully shot in many places, with some excellent cinematography & production standards, not to mention an impressive script well acted in particular by Tom Cruise & Ken Watanabe, Zwick creates a recognisably Hollywood picture but for once a movie that doesn’t dumb down, doesn’t pander and ultimately serves as an often involving, often damn well made story.

Especially one to check out if you love the way of the samurai.

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