Tom Cruise stars in The Last Samurai, an epic war drama about the last days of old Japan before Western civilization sunk its teeth into it for good. The movie has everything one wants - action, drama and romance - but does it have what it takes to combine them all?
Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a Civil War veteran who suffers from nightmares of killing innocent native Americans. He travels to Japan to train an army to go up against a band of rogue samurais that disagree with the Emperor's decision to adopt Western civilization wherever possible. However, in his first encounter with the sword-carrying "savages," he is taken prisoner and brought to a small village where the lead samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) lives. Over time, Algren learns to love the life and way of the samurai, and eventually ends up fighting with them against the more modern army that seeks to change the way of Japanese life.
The meaning of The Last Samurai is quite evident: is modernization so important that it destroys who you are? These movie seems to have deep political motivations in regards to what is going on today: does it really make things better when one nation accepts another nation's culture? Obviously, this theme rings heavily during the final half hour of the film, as the samurai and the modern army clash for the last time, yet they are all Japanese fighting one another (well, with one very famous American thrown in for charm).
The Last Samurai succeeds with its breathtaking scenery, its good action scenes and its intriguing characters. Though not perfect (can a superstar such as Cruise ever be completely accepted in a role such as this?), Cruise is believable as a man who changes so much throughout the film. He is likeable but flawed, perhaps the character that can win over any audience. Toward the end, Cruise does begin to look more like Cruise than his character Nathan Algren; some of the acting is a little over the top and took some of the power out of the scenes. Nevertheless, he should be given a pat on the back for doing yet another highly ambitious film and getting away with it.
More than anything else, The Last Samurai is fun to watch because of the scenery. It is such a beautiful movie, in both the shots it shows and the way it chooses to show them. Director Edward Zwick (Glory) knows how to direct a movie like this, and is very effective.
The Last Samurai is a fairly flawless movie with epic scope, exciting action sequences and some powerful drama. Nevertheless, I never felt blown away by this film for some reason or another; I never got that feeling that I get when I am seeing a truly extraordinary film. The Last Samurai may be one of 2003's epics, and for that it should be congratulated, but compared to the few films that can truly be considered "awesome," it isn't quite up there.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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