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A paranoid Tom Cruise suddenly wonders why he's
the only Samurai dressed in a flamboyant red outfit.

The Last Samurai
Review written by: Alex Sandell

After seeing the destruction of the Indian way of life during the American Indian Wars, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a broken down drunk who feels he has no place in the new America.  When he's asked to help train Japan's first modern army, he decides to take the job, because it pays well.  He has no opinion, either way, on the modernization of Japan's military.  He just wants some money and plenty of booze. 

Along with the rise of the new westernized Japan, Omura (Masato Harada) a capitalist proponent of modernization and a greedy opponent of the traditional ways of Japanese culture feels that the last of the Samurai must fall.  Omura has the ear of the Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura), who's stuck somewhere between his love of tradition and the growing pressure he faces to keep his military and country up-to-date.  Omura wins the war of the cultures and Japan begins going through the sweeping changes that have recently altered the American landscape.

After briefly training the Japanese soldiers in the way of modern-day weapons such as rifles and cannons, Captain Algren finds himself and the Japanese troops pushed prematurely into battle by Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn).  Algren has had a problem with Bagley since the colonel slaughtered a group of innocent Native Americans during the American Indian Wars.  It was this incident, more than any other, which turned Captain Algren into the shell of a man that he has become. 

To prove to Bagley that the troops aren't ready for battle, Algren stands in front of a young soldier and asks the conscript to shoot him.  Even with a trusty rifle and multiple bullets at his disposal, the soldier is unable to hit his human target.  Col. Bagley ignores the incident, sends the troops into battle, and puts Captain Algren in the position of watching the men under his command being slaughtered by the Samurai.  The Samurai take Algren prisoner, and, while in captivity, the Captain draws parallels between the Samurai and the Native Americans, and feels the honor and compassion he had lost as an American soldier beginning to return to him as a Japanese prisoner.

Captivity also causes a bit of romance to flair up between the two different cultures when the pretty Taka (Koyuki) is forced to watch over pretty-boy Algren as he mends.  In an odd twist of fate (and/or convenient plot vehicle), Nathan Algren is the very same man that killed Taka's husband in battle.  Once Nathan's up and about, he begins writing a journal on the curious Samurai culture.  In many ways, The Last Samurai is Dances with Wolves in a different setting.  But what a resplendent setting it is. 

Director, Producer and Screenwriter, Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall, Glory), Production Designer, Lilly Kilvert (The American President, Hart's War), Costume Designer, Ngila Dickson (Lord of Rings trilogy, Heavenly Creatures) and Cinematographer, John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Braveheart) have created one of the most sumptuous looking films of 2003.  The beautiful sunsets, colorful clothing, and wonderful locations make you wonder why anyone would want to trade in the old way of the Samurai for the dull, mechanical appearance of the American soldiers.  This film looks perfect.  It isn't hard to believe that you're staring into the Japan of the late 19th century.    

Along with being visually stunning, the movie is peppered with a bouncy sense of humor and a handful of thrilling battle scenes.  Edward Zwick knows how to shoot a war.  Watching the battles between Samurai with swords and soldiers with rifles and bayonets is chilling.  The Samurai have no way of winning, but Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) would rather die with honor than to survive with nothing but memories of the culture he spent his life defending. 

The relationship between Captain Nathan Algren and Samurai Leader Katsumoto is the most rewarding element of the film.  Katsumoto is the only Samurai able to speak English fluently.  He enjoys his conversations with Nathan, but likes to end them just when they're getting interesting.  Being American, Captain Algren could most likely spend hours chatting about the weather, but Katsumoto isn't one for small talk.  The topic that really catches the warrior's fancy is in regards to  Custer's Last Stand.  The Samurai thinks Custer sounded like a man who died with honor. 

The screenwriters wisely focus on the amicable relationship between Katsumoto and Algren, rather than spending an unnecessary amount of time on the requisite romance between Algren and Taka.  The romantic scenes that are featured in the film are nothing but a series of wayward glances, or awkward moments between the two lovebirds.  There are no "movie moments" where Taka poses in the nude for Algren to sketch her, or where Algren stands outside Taka's window with a handful of flowers, begging her forgiveness.

In most respects, the movie is regardful of the Japanese culture.  Rather than having everyone flying around on wires and hanging off of the tops of trees, it depicts Samurai swordplay as an art and, simultaneously, an effective tool of combat.  It spends a large amount of time showing the various Samurai, along with Algren, honing their skills with a sword.  Captain Algren becomes a part of the Samurai culture, rather than trying to make the Samurai's become a part of his.  He doesn't try to convert the warriors to Christianity, and resists building a 5,300-pound Ten Commandments monument in the Samurai's rotunda. 

If you're looking hard enough for it, you'll be able to find the whole Great White Hope thing lurking quietly in the background; but even if you're determined to get pissed off at this picture for being politically incorrect, you'll have trouble doing so.  The filmmakers have an obvious respect for The Way of the Warrior (Bushido), and are trying to pay honor to the Samurai.  Sure, the approach they take may be slightly misguided, but their hearts are in the right place.  And no one has ever claimed that this film was based on a true story.  Its primary aim is to entertain, and, in that department, The Last Samurai does the job.   

By using the basic plot devices found in Dances with Wolves, and adding elements of Braveheart and Gladiator, the creative forces behind this film have turned out a fairly intelligent popcorn movie.  It's not very original, but it had the audience laughing, crying and, by the climatic battle, showing their support for the good guys by clapping and yelling things like "woo" and "yippee."  If you don't desperately need every film you watch to be unlike any other film that you've ever seen, and are in the mood for a fun time at the movies, a ticket to The Last Samurai may be just the thing you need to conquer the mid-winter blues.

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Coming soon -- Reviews of The Lord of the Rings:  Return of the King, Cheaper by the Dozen and Honey!

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Text (Copyright) 2003 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].