The Last Samurai
“Last Samurai” comes on like a blend of “Dances with Wolves” meets “The Last of the Mohicans” meets “Braveheart” – it’s about a tortured hero who regains his identity by communing with the locals in the Japanese equivalent of the Western Frontier, befriends a spirited leader, and is then caught in a violent civil war with the heart of a nation at stake. But perhaps you’ll be more interested in this short synopsis: it’s terrific epic filmmaking with tremendous soul, and despite the familiar emotional territory of its two-plus-hour tale, it’s worth every penny of your admission ticket.
Cruise is all windswept hair and soul-deep eyes as Captain Nathan Algren, who at the top of the film has lost faith in duty and honor on the banks of the Washita River as his efforts in the Indian war end in despair. He is hired away from a sideshow existence by the Japanese Emperor, who asks him to train a conscript army in an effort to eradicate the remaining vestiges of the Samurai, who defiantly claim to fight for the Emperor even as they take arms against him. Algren is captured by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the Samurai; the two men eventually befriend and Algren is swept into their cause.
Zwick is a master of storytelling, deft with his camera and one of the best in the industry at visually conceiving, then maximizing, the spine of a plot. There is tremendous expanse both thematically and emotionally in “Last Samurai” and between Zwick and Hans Zimmer (whose music is vibrant and luscious, as we have come to expect), the film delivers on its powerful premise with great style.
It’s a shame that we’ve seen these concepts before – albeit in different configurations. Both Cruise and Watanabe are great actors – perhaps without the surety of those whose purviews exist purely in epic territory, but with a vulnerability pervasive to their characters’ core which brings true realism to the film (you won’t get this deep with Russell Crowe, for example). But it’s also difficult to watch “Last Samurai” without feeling pangs of recognition courtesy of its aforementioned brethren. Those are great films too – but original and far more daring in their existence, and we applaud those risks.
The reason to see this film, then, is in its impassioned presentation of its subject matter – the honor and bravery of the Samurai, whose days may have long passed but whose legends are extraordinary. This is Hollywood speaking, so naturally it is not historical fact; yet it’s a deeply stirring account of a pyrric battle wherein integrity bests capitalism amidst complete corporeal ruin. “Last Samurai” is heart, not just heartfelt. Go see it.