I could put so many sentences after those three words I cant choose what to use. Instead of one, Ill do a few.
This film is beautiful.
This film is moving.
This film is violent.
This film is badass cool.
This film is the film Braveheart wishes it was.
That should be enough.
Ill explain The Last Samurai centres on Tom Cruises character Nathan Algren. Algren is a hero of Americas Indian and Civil Wars and is contracted by his former Commanding Officer and a Japanese Minister to train the Imperial Japanese Army to defeat an army of rebelling Samurai. When forced into battle early, Algren is captured and taken prisoner by the Samurai, eventually learning to love the culture and people he was sent to destroy. Thats a pretty simplified summary, but I dont want to give too much away.
I dont know who did the casting for this film (actually I do, it was Victoria Thomas and Yoko Narahashi), but they did a fantastic job. Tom Cruise is at his best as Algren, who is deeply troubled by what hes done in the name of war. Stealing the show from Cruise though is the films Japanese cast members. Foremost of these is Ken Watanabe, who plays Katsumoto, the enigmatic leader of the Samurai. Also excellent are Koyuki (Katsumotos sister, Taka) and Hiroyuki Sanada (Samurai hardman, Ujio). They all play their characters with a subtlety which carries the emotion of the film through to the audience with a grace that is sadly lacking in most Hollywood cinema. Fantastic stuff.
Visually, the film is gorgeous. Cinematography John Toll (who also did Braveheart, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky) really captures the beauty in Japans countryside. The whole film is very vivid and you never need, or want to take your eyes away from it.
Before I saw this film, Id never heard of Edward Zwick. But it seems I have seen some of his films. He directed Legends of the Fall (which is a great film starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins). Zwicks directing (and screenplay, as he co-wrote that) is deftly handled and really allows the cast and the cinematography to shine. The action scenes are brilliantly handled. The swordfighting is some of the best, if not the best, Ive seen in a Hollywood film. Its that damn good. It flashes by very fast, but its filmed in a way that you can take every slash and parry into your system and process it without getting lost. The big battles are a lot less easy to follow, they are haphazard and hard to follow completely. But this is as it should be. The battles are obviously hard to follow if you are in them, and this is what comes through, not a feeling that you dont know whats going on.
The screenplay is very good and combined with the excellent cast makes for an emotional, moving film, without feeling like you are being manipulated to feel that way. I was welling up more than once and its not very often a film makes me do that.
All in all I loved this film. Its quite possible Ive overhyped it, because I got very carried away in the Samurai action, the way of life that it portrays and I never looked back. But, Im quite confident that even if I have over sold it, it is still an excellent film. Go see it.
So what of the film that the phrase Oscar vehicle was invented to describe? I liked it. Not as much as I hoped I would, but there was much to enjoy about The Last Samurai.
Tom Cruise put in his usual solid performance at the traumatized American embracing one alien culture as atonement for destroying another. The inevitable Oscar is going to be a lifetime achievement award in all but name, but it certainly wouldn't be a travesty to give it him for this. Cruise picked out the nuances of a man scarred by the Indian Wars, and I felt I was watching a character, not an audition.
The theme at the heart of the movie, modernity vs progress, is perennial, and The Last Samurai never really addressed it in depth. It was a hostage to the same circumstances the Samurai were faced with; the abruptness and horror of their destruction was there, but there wasn't any real insight into the whys and wherefores. The Japanese minister who represented modernity was a one dimensional the embodiment of the callous mandarin stereotype, and this was very disappointing.
But what the film got very right was immersing you in the Samurai culture. It was essentially fascist, demanding absolute obedience and honour, and this leapt off the screen. Ken Watanabe's Katsumoto, the real star of the film, represented this splendidly, and his scenes with the naive young emperor were heart aching, portraying a man as much a slave to his rigid traditions as the Americans were in thrall to modernity.
Nathan Algren's journey is essentially a redemption tale, the oldest plot in the book, but where The Last Samurai was, forgive me, a cut above is how seriously it took this journey, according its spiritual heart genuine respect. The Samurai's embrace of religion really came across, though it's a shame this wasn't properly squared off against Algern's secularism before he cast it aside.
The cinematography was incredible. My favourite shot of the film is the haunting battle scene in the woods, where the Samurai are unleashed like wraiths on progress. It was as poetic as it was intense. And intense is the right word for the battles, from the intimate to the epic: The Last Samurai captured the vicious ballet of swordfighting superbly, retaining speed without sacrificing clarity. The shots portraying Algren's spiritual appreciation of the deadly art visually captured a very difficult concept, and reminded my a lot of my Aikido days (although in the time it took Algren to become the Jedi master of the Samurai, I was getting ready for my first belt ... which speaks volumes of either Hollywood exaggeration or my martial arts skills, take your pick). The Ninja (one can never have to many Ninjas!) battle is one of the finest pieces of swordwork I've seen on film, and restored the dignity the art of the blade was robbed of by all the juvenile chop-socky flics.
The final battle was a great climax to the film, and said with what it showed what the film failed to in its dialogue. That felt like the natural end of The Last Samurai, and what came afterwards seemed horribly tacked on for the sake of giving the audience some cheap catharsis. It was definitely five minutes to long.
But I forgive it that, because the Hollywoodisms were few and far between, and as an elegy to a lost culture, The Last Samurai felt poetic and true.