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With: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall, William Atherton, Chad Lindberg, Ray Godshall Sr. Tony Goldwyn, Masato Harada, Masashi Odate, John Koyama, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Togo Igawa, Satoshi Nikaido
Written by: John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick
Directed by: Edward Zwick
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and battle sequences
Running Time: 154
Date: 11/22/2003
IMDB

The Last Samurai (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

The Stray of the Samurai

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Last Samurai looks at Japanese culture as if through a glass case in some pristine museum. We can't touch it and it can't touch us. We're just supposed to sit and marvel at its noble beauty.

How then are we supposed to get behind the character of Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), an American Civil War hero who lives with the samurai for a winter and learns their ways?

After helping to advertise the Winchester '73 rifle and drinking himself into oblivion, Algren agrees to work with the Japanese, training their troops in the ways of American fighting.

At this point in history, the Japanese have arrived at an impasse, where their traditions have begun to fade away in the wake of Westernization. Rather than fight it, Japanese officials have decided to embrace it and help it along.

While training a band of young soldiers, Algren winds up in an actual battle with real samurai. He's captured, but not before he kills a particularly fearsome warrior in sneering battle regalia.

As a matter of honor, Algren stays the winter with the samurai and is cared for by the widow of the man he killed. During that time, he learns their ways and their code of honor and joins them in the big final battle against the emperor.

More than one reviewer has already compared The Last Samurai to Dances With Wolves in which one enlightened white man forsakes his own dastardly white ways and embraces the peaceful, noble ways of a foreign culture. Both movies assume 100% good on one side of the coin and 100% evil on the other side, which makes for a very uninteresting battle.

Moreover, Cruise has been terribly miscast in his role. Similar to Russell Crowe in Gladiator he has nothing to do but brood. It's a one-note performance built around an emotional wall. Cruise's vitality has always been in his cockiness and in his clever way of breaking down that cockiness when trouble arises.

Ironically, he's much better in the film's opening scenes, drunk, full of himself, firing the Winchester into the crowd to demonstrate its impressive report. He's a kinetic actor, and this soon becomes an immobile role.

The same goes for the poor, talented Japanese cast, including Ken Watanabe (Tampopo) as head samurai Katsumoto and Koyuki (from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's still-unreleased Pulse) as Algren's love interest. Neither these nor the two English actors Billy Connolly and Timothy Spall have much to do besides react to Cruise and read lots of expositional dialogue.

None of this comes as any surprise when the end credits roll and we see none other than John Logan credited on the screenplay. Logan's uninspiring credits rank him among the worst screenwriters of all time: Bats, RKO 281, Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Time Machine, Star Trek: Nemesis and the recent Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. And yet he still continues to get work.

And director Edward Zwick doesn't help much. A one-hit wonder with Glory, Zwick has made a career of polite, responsible films with little in the way of energy or personality. Many of them simply arrive in theaters already dead in the hopes that their very proper subject matter will endear them to viewers with stiff upper lips.

Zwick has no flair for the supposedly awesome battle scene that should have closed The Last Samurai. The top three greatest battle scenes ever filmed belong to Shakespeare adaptations: Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, Akira Kurosawa's Ran and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, followed by Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. In each one, the story supported the battle, not vise versa, as in The Last Samurai. And in each one, the battle has a rhythm to it; it tells a story all by itself.

For the Last Samurai battle, Zwick fails to get a sense of how big the battle is and how important it is. He relies on random "coverage," and chops between dislocated footage of random attacks: a spurt of blood here, a deadly arrow there. But he cuts too quickly and none of the footage has any punch. He even pauses for a ludicrous amount of time to let Algren express shock over a fallen comrade.

Finally, Zwick drags his movie down into the mire by the final ten or so minutes of horrible dialogue and overacted scenes. Whatever momentum the battle brings to the film is sucked dry by this endless epilogue.

For some reason, most people are still impressed by the sheer size of a film, regardless of its content, starting with The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and moving all the way up to Titanic and Gladiator. No doubt The Last Samurai will be highly regarded and may snag several top Oscar nominations. But size isn't everything.

This review also appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.

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