Sunday, July 3, 2011

Review: "The Last Samurai" is a Fine American Jidaigeki (Happy B'day, Tom Cruise)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 179 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Last Samurai (2003)
Running time: 154 minutes (2 hours, 34 minutes)
MPAA – R for strong violence and battle sequences
DIRECTOR: Edward Zwick
WRITERS: John Logan, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz, from a story by John Logan
PRODUCERS: Tom Cruise, Tom Engelman, Marshall Herskovitz, Scott Kroopf, Paula Wagner, Vincent Ward, and Edward Zwick
EDITOR: Victor Dubois and Steven Rosenblum
COMPOSER: Hans Zimmer
Academy Award nominee


Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Koyuki, Shin Koyamada, Aoi Minata, Hiroyuki Sanada, Seizo Fukumoto, Shoji Yoshihara, and William Atherton

My beat up, worn copy of the 1980 edition of The Random House Dictionary defines romance as “having feelings and thoughts of love and adventure” and “fanciful and impractical.” It defines romanticism, “as a style of literature and art of the 19th century that encouraged freedom of form and emphasized imagination and emotion.” Director Edward Zwick's (Glory, Legends of the Fall) new film, The Last Samurai, fits all of those definitions quite well, and that’s a blessing for moviegoers. In the tradition of The Lord of the Rings films, The Last Samurai is a gloriously romantic epic of war and of warriors fighting for tradition, honor, and the old way.

Captain Woodrow Algren (Tom Cruise) is an alcoholic veteran of the War Between the States. He was also an “Indian fighter” for the United States Army where he participated in a horrible massacre of native people by the Army. By the late 1870’s, he is a spokesman for Winchester guns when he gets an offer to go to Japan and train troops for Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura).

Japan is trying to break away from the centuries long tradition of employing samurai to protect the territories and serve the emperor. Advisors close to the emperor want a modern army, and it wants Algren and the Americans to train the new army to wipe out the remaining samurai warriors, who have rebelled and hide in the forests.

The first battle between Algren’s troops and the samurai is a rout as the army is ill prepared to face the ferocious warriors. Algren is wounded in combat, and the samurai capture him after he fiercely defends himself against the highly trained warriors. This impresses the samurai’s legendary leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who teaches Algren the warrior’s code of honor. The rest of the men respect and him and teach Algren their techniques. As he embraces this new way of life, Algren must chose upon which side of the conflict he is on, even as he recalls how his old life tormented him.

Zwick has a gift for filming powerful war epics, as he shows in Samurai’s stirring and elegantly mounted battle scenes. The film is gorgeously designed and is awash in rich colors, from the intense earth tones of the countryside to the opulent yet practical costumes. Zwick is ably assisted by talented set designers who created fabulous structures that looked simultaneously lavish and new but also lived in. Hans Zimmer’s score really sells this film; it’s the sweet and tempting icing on the cake.

This is a good performance by Tom Cruise, but not one of his best. Here, both his star power and acting experience serve him quite well. He can hit all the marks, but his personality seems to get in the way. Sometimes Cruise is too cool for his own good, to laid back, sexy, and confident in his screen presence. Other times on screen, he seems to unleash so much anger and aggression in portraying the character, but that juxtaposition of too cool and simmering anger adds to the sense of mystery and danger in many of his characters, almost as if he’s crazy. Still, the camera loves Cruise, and the big screen maximizes the power of his matinee idol looks.

In one of the few times this will happen, Cruise has to share the screen with another maximum presence, Ken Watanabe as the majestic warrior Katsumoto. His deep and powerful presence really add weight to this story, making it seem less fanciful. The idea of the almighty whitey going to another culture, embracing it, and learning its ways to become just like one of the other natives is laughable and old fashioned, but when it works, it’s high romance that’s hard to resist. Watanabe is the balance, and he creates a character and gives a performance that embraces the foreigner. Katsumoto is tremendous intelligence, great patience, and gigantic wisdom; if he accepts Captain Algren, then so can we.

The supporting cast does major work here, especially the largely Asian and likely Asian-American cast. Tony Goldwyn is an under appreciated actor, and he shows once again that he can turn a character into an interesting and engaging character. Mr. Nakamura plays the Emperor Meiji with perfection, making his personality fit into the politics of the story. In his face, we see Japan’s struggle to both hold onto the past and the necessity to move forward.

Who is the “last samurai?” It could be Algren, but more than likely, it’s Katsumoto. Even though the film has a muddled, neatly packaged Hollywood ending, Katsumoto’s spirit, discipline, and way of life gives The Last Samurai a strong pleasant fragrance. When you see this film, you’ll know how it should have ended and what it says about Japan then and the way we live now.

8 of 10

2004 Academy Awards: 4 nominations: “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Ken Watanabe), “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration” (Lilly Kilvert-art director and Gretchen Rau-set decorator), “Best Costume Design” (Ngila Dickson), and “Best Sound Mixing” (Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, and Jeff Wexler)

2004 Golden Globes: 3 nominations: “Best Original Score - Motion Picture” (Hans Zimmer), “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama” (Tom Cruise), and “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture” (Ken Watanabe)


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