The Last Samurai

Review Date:
Director: Edward Zwick
Writer: Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, John Logan
Producers: Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner
Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren, Ken Wanatabe as Katsumoto, Tony Goldwyn as Benjamin Bagly
An American Civil War “hero” is asked to travel to Japan in order to help the Emperor fight against the rebellion of the legendary Samurai, protectors of the country for centuries. When captured by the enemy, the American is asked to stick around for “conversations” with the leader of the samurai, who in turn, teaches the Yank a thing or two about life, war and honor. Action, romance, emotion, drama, humor, friggin’ ninjas and sword-fights…ensue!
Wow. That was the first word that came out of my mouth as I aimlessly stumbled out of this motion picture, followed closely by “Now that’s a movie!” I was expecting very little from this film when I sat down and even less when I heard that it was close to 2 1/2 hours long (bad memories from the stilted MASTER AND COMMANDER came to mind), but it took less than five minutes for me to be absolutely engulfed in the mastery that is this film with almost every single element of the movie-making process connecting on virtually every level from the acting to the action to the story, the pacing, the music, the emotional resonance, the character development, the cinematography, the beginning, the ending…the friggin’ everything! The film manages to entertain, but it also tells a tale of how the old school mentality of truth, honor and respect have gone out the window, only to be replaced by the dehumanization effects of technology, the arms race and the segregation of the world community. None of that is outlined, of course, but it’s there, right under the film’s gorgeous surface which is not only coated with the wondrous beauty of the Japanese countryside and time period, but its authenticity, look, feel and atmosphere as well. That surface appeal is doubled-up by its strength of characters, all of whom are developed to the point that tears bottled up my eyeballs during several of the film’s more emotional sequences. That’s right, I cried like a B and I was proud of it! Tom Cruise leads the pack, once again, with yet another engaging performance in which he doesn’t just “play Tom”, the man who put the cock in cocky, but a wounded, imperfect soul who had all but given up on life, only to be forced inside a place that re-ignited his lost spirit.

The film is brilliant in that way because it allows us, the “imperfect audience members”, to connect our own tainted dreams, hopes and ambitions to Cruise’s journey through the higher mindedness of the Samurai. And speaking of the Samurai…am I the only one who wants to become one after watching this movie? Wow, talk about an amazing transformation and outlook on life. I always believed that much of that Zen stuff was just plain double-talk, but this film is amazing in both its depth of character interaction and preciseness of dialogue, through which great thought and resonance is placed upon every scene, every word and every action sequence. To that end, consider how almost every person who perished in this film affected me emotionally, during even its most violent scenarios. It’s also to note that if actor Ken Watanabe, playing the all-powerful Katsumoto, doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his part in this film, consider me to be the uncle of a monkey. And did I mention the film’s intense and pointed musical score? Yup, Hans Zimmer is back with yet another perfect addition to the film’s many strengths and a rousing score that was still buzzing in my head as I washed away the tears of the characters gone by. And before I forgot about one of the film’s greatest attributes, consider its all-out sword-fighting, arrow-flinging and ass-kicking battle scenes, all of which rival any other action scene from any film this year (which is saying quite a bit) and are pretty gosh-darn brutal to boot. And did you know that the film has ninjas too? Hand to God! In fact, the ninja/samurai head-to-head is about as bloody and furious as they get. Loved it all. Phew. But there’s more, folks…

The film’s also got a surprising amount of humor too. Most of it has to do with Cruise’s character being caught inside a world about which he knows very little (“I’ll call you Bob”), but it’s funny, cute and even poignant at times. The film’s deeper message about a man’s honor is its most important checkpoint though and as we live through the characters, we ultimately feel what they feel, and as the end closes in on them, we’re right in there…up close and personal. Add that to a subtle, yet extremely effective, amorous angle between Cruise and Asian actress Koyuki, yet another engaging relationship between Cruise and the kids about town and you pretty much have all of the elements that one requires from your every day top-notch epic, up to and including a powerful conclusion. Sold yet? I hope so because it’s really one of the best movies of the year, reminiscent of the one other great epic motion picture that I saw earlier this year entitled CITY OF GOD, and definitely deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Props to Tom Cruise, for once again, choosing an amazing film in which to take part (he apparently didn’t even take any salary “up front” here– great man!), director Ed Zwick for putting it all together so brilliantly and everyone in the credits for providing the audience with a wholly entertaining view of a place in time and spirit that is so far away from us, and yet…so very close.

(c) 2021 Berge Garabedian

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