December 01, 2003

The Last Samurai

Almost without fail, director Edward Zwick's films (GLORY, LEGENDS OF THE FALL, COURAGE UNDER FIRE, THE SIEGE) all have the same effect on me. I see all of their faults and there are probably a dozen reasons why these movies shouldn't work, but they always suck me in and force me to like them anyway. THE LAST SAMURAI is probably the easiest Zwick film to like despite what I believe is the dreadful miscasting of Tom Cruise in the lead as war hero Nathan Algren, a man who sours at the idea that his bet years are behind him and has begrudgingly settled into a life of personal appearances and drunken stupors. Still, Cruise won me over, especially in the film's second half, by simply shutting up and letting the beauty and elegance of a dying Japanese culture be the center of attention.

Algren is hired by progressive-thinking Japanese railroad tycoons looking to enlist American war heroes to go to Japan and fight the last of the samurai, who are struggling to hold on the old ways of Japan and resists Westernized ways. Algren is brought into the battle by his former commanding officer Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn), who Algren has serious misgivings about for reasons I'll keep secret for now. Algren drags along with him the faithful Sgt. Zebulah Grant (Billy Connolly) for comic relief. Algren trains the Japanese troops in how to use rifles, and defend themselves against the samurai's awesome skills with swords, arrows, and staffs. In the first clash between the new Japanese army and the samurai, Algren is captured after putting up an amazing fight. The samurai leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) is so impressed with him that he takes him back to their village in the mountains rather than kill him. Despite their fighting on opposite side, Algren acknowledges the he has no real grudge with the samurai and, instead, takes to observing the disciplined manner in which they live every aspect of their lives. Algren and Katsumoto (who is learning English) form a tentative friendship based on mutual admiration of each other's warrior ways. Not a lot happens in this mid-section of the film, but that's okay. The training sequences (which Algren joins in on) substitute for action, and it works. The early stages of a love story also start up as Cruise begins to fall for the woman running the dwelling where he's being allowed to say. They have a unwelcome connection that he's unaware of, and it threatens the relationship, but the love story is a minor part of this movie.

In the film's jaw-dropping third act, the key themes are blood, gore, and death...and more blood. In the final battle between new and old Japan, it seems that every stroke of a samurai sword results in a gaping wound or a complete run through an opponents body. Blood is gushing from every sword cut and bullet hole. I'm sure there is some degree of special effects at work here, but it's flawless. And this is no KILL BILL-style sword fighting; you feel the weight and sharpness of every stroke. Thankfully, no wire works here either. This is reality, people. This battlefield is shear brutality, and those who loved Zwick's battle scenes in GLORY will not be disappointed as you wipe the blood from your brow. THE LAST SAMURAI is one of those rare films that works as well during its most quiet and serene moments as it does during its most booming and relentlessly violent. I was genuinely impressed by all of the actors, even Cruise who shows a gift for knowing when to step into the background, and Zwick's fantastic eye for action and scenic views. The visual style of THE LAST SAMURAI reminded me a lot of some of Kurosawa's later color films in its treatment of color, in particular, blood red. This is a hearty, worthy film filled with great things despite its few flaws. It opens December 5.

Posted by sprokopy at 03:00 PM