The Last Samurai Review
By Shawn McKenzie 01/08/2004
When I first saw ads for The Last Samurai months before it was released, I didn’t know that this was Tom Cruise’s latest attempt to try to grab some Oscar gold. I figured it was his latest attempt to prove that he can do his own stunts, a la the Mission Impossible movies (he does that here as well anyway.) In the month that the movie has been in theaters, it has garnered several award show nominations, including three Golden Globe nods. Since I have now finally seen it, I think it is award-worthy, though I don’t see Oscar going to Cruise this year.
Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a Civil War hero who is haunted by his past. He’s not haunted by the Civil War, but from recently fighting American Indians in the West. It’s now 1876, and he is an alcoholic and experiencing flashbacks of a cruel massacre of women and children by himself under the direction of his commanding officer, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn.) He is doing demonstrations for a rifle company, but it almost equals up to a circus sideshow act. He gets a chance to do something more challenging when Japanese businessman Omura (Masato Harada) makes him an offer. He wants to modernize his country through his railway system, and he has been pressuring the young Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura) to suppress the recent samurai attacks that are stopping that process. Omura has hired Bagley to train the country’s new army and the Colonel in turn thinks of Algren because of Algren’s experience with fighting the Indians, which he figures are the same as the Samurais. Algren doesn’t want to do it at first, but eventually agrees after an offer to be paid $500 a month plus an additional $500 upon completion, and he gets to bring his friend and fellow Army veteran, Sergeant Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly), with him. Algren heads to Japan where he meets the army’s interpreter, the British Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), and starts training the troops. He also depends on General Hasegawa (Togo Igawa) to help him learn more about the leader of the Samurais, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), since Hasegawa once fought along side him. Omura gets antsy though, and demands that Algren lead the army into a battle with the Samurais, even though they were clearly not ready. Predictably, the army is massacred, resulting in the deaths of some friends and people he has come to know. Algren himself is almost killed, but his warrior spirit while killing a red-armored Samurai impresses Katsumoto enough that he spares the American’s life takes him prisoner so he can find out what Omura is up to next. Katsumoto brings Algren to a remote village run by his son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada.) Since Algren doesn’t exactly know where to escape to, he isn’t confined in a cell, though he is constantly followed by the Silent samurai (Seizo Fukumoto), his bodyguard/watcher. He stays with Taka (Koyuki), Katsumoto’s sister and the widow of the red-armored Samurai, who dutifully heals him up, but is uncomfortable with him being there. Katsumoto’s right-hand man, Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada), constantly challenges Algren to fights, but ironically trains him in Samurai fighting techniques. Time passes and Algren becomes friends with Katsumoto. He decides to help the Samurais, especially with the regrouping of Omura’s army and his purchase of modern weapons that could wipe out the Samurais for the last time.
Cruise does a decent job in this movie, but I wouldn’t say it was his best job ever. It is hard to show off acting chops in an action movie, but it apparently can be done, as proven by Russell Crowe in Gladiator (though many have said that he didn’t deserve the Oscar for that role.) Golden Globe nominated Watanabe is slightly more impressive.
Overall, I liked the movie a lot, though it has a couple of flaws. After watching the movie, I couldn’t get the voice of David Spade doing the “SNL” Hollywood Report saying, “I liked the movie the first time I saw it…when it was called Dances with Wolves.” I found it ironic that Algren had fought Indians before experiencing his own Dance. The second flaw was the tacked on love story between Algren and Taka that goes absolutely nowhere. It is so pointless and it takes up screen time that would have been better used in exploring the developing relationship between Algren and Katsumoto.
The Last Samurai will get some Oscar love, but I bet it will be mostly in technical categories. It will probably be nominated for best costuming, and it will probably go up against House of Sand and Fog for cinematography. Maybe director/co-screenwriter Edward Zwick might get a nod for putting it all together and making it look good. I’d see it just to see a cool action flick with an interesting story, even though it isn’t exactly original. Keep trying to reach for that gold Tom…I believe you’ll get it someday. Hey, maybe I’ll be wrong…just look again at Crowe.
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