The Last Samurai is a compelling meditative tale of redemption, honor, and family.
The Last Samurai transports us back to the 19th century where we meet American former Cpt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), an alcoholic who developed PTSD from his service in the American Indian wars. Since Algren became known for his success as a leader in those wars, his former commanding officer Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) and Japanese businessman Omura (Masato Harada) approach and offer him a difficult job: train the newly formed Imperial Japanese Army, so they can be ready to fight against the army of samurai. Desperate for money, Algren accepts the job and leads the Imperial Japanese Army into battle.
Through a turn of events, Algren is captured and brought back to the home of the samurai, where he meets their leader, Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Katsumoto engages in conversation with him, trying to figure out more about Algren and the people he fights for.
As Algren is being held in captivity, he learns more about the samurai culture and the people. Through his encounters with them, Algren not only learns about them, he also discovers more about who he is as a man and a soldier.
Directed by Edward Zwick, The Last Samurai is arguably one of Zwick’s underrated movies to date. The director has an eclectic mix of movies on his resume, consisting of romantic comedies (About Last Night, Love and Other Drugs), political thrillers (The Siege, Blood Diamond), and war films (Glory, Defiance, Courage Under Fire). But, with The Last Samurai, he has made his magnum opus. The Last Samurai is a compelling meditative tale of redemption, honor, and family.
Scripted by Zwick, John Logan, and Marshall Herskovitz, the film unfolds more as a character drama than a war film. Most of the film is spent with Algren becoming familiar with the samurai culture and the people. By focusing more on character than action, the screenwriters successfully give us an understanding of the samurai culture and, at the same time, humanize them to a point where we care about what happens to them. To that end, whenever the action occurs in the film, we, as viewers, feel attached to every one of the samurai and root for them to succeed.
Admittedly, the plot for The Last Samurai recalls Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves—in which, an American man interacts with a foreign culture and learns their customs and traditions. Moreover, the themes of misunderstanding, discrimination, and assimilation are present throughout The Last Samurai, making the connection even more noticeable. However, the screenwriters avoid making The Last Samurai a rip-off by successfully incorporating a “traditional vs modern” storyline into the mix. In this film, the Japanese are fighting their own people. While the samurai (traditional) fight for what remains of their culture, the Imperial Japanese army (modern) fight to preserve their newfound culture.
On the action front, The Last Samurai showcases well-filmed action sequences. Director Edward Zwick and cinematographer John Toll capture sequences of the samurai riding on horses, shooting bow-and-arrows at the Imperial army, and stabbing the opposing side with swords with clear, wide-angle shots. Seeing the action in the film is even better with Hans Zimmer’s breathtaking score. The music accompanied with the visuals makes the film more epic in scale and more palpable in the dramatic scenes.
Performance-wise, Tom Cruise, as Algren, gives one of his best and nuanced performances of his career. Cruise not only has to portray the dark sides to Algren’s personality, but also must portray his vulnerability and good nature. These scenes called for Cruise to elicit complex emotions, which he does with skill. Ken Watanabe, as Katsumoto, likewise shines in his role, playing a man who sternly believes in traditional ideals. Watanabe successfully conveys Katsumoto’s strong leadership skills, loyalty, and loving nature. His screen chemistry with Cruise makes the friendship believable and enjoyable to see as the film rolls along.
The Last Samurai is an underrated masterpiece that is filled with heart, drama, and philosophical ideas. If you are looking for a great film to watch, check out The Last Samurai. You won’t regret it!
Rating: 5 out of 5
To see other great Tom Cruise performances, check out Magnolia and Collateral.