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last samurai
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The Last Samurai

Starring Tom Cruise
Screenplay by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick
Directed by Edward Zwick

IN SHORT: Another for our Best Of The Year list. [Rated R for strong violence and battle sequences. 154 minutes]

Since we've already had one film this year involving flashing swords and Japanese cultural yada yada, allow us to point out the difference between good film making and crap. Good film making provides characters whose behavior changes and progresses throughout the course of the film. Good film making provides a story that has a beginning a middle and an end with similar starting and end points for whatever subplots and character arcs occur inside the overall story. Providing great action sequences and gorgeous locations and cinematography is just icing on the cake. Bad filmmaking makes you pay for two tickets because the film auteur is too damned full of himself to tell his story in any reasonable amount of time. Thus, The Last Samurai, which is all of the former and doesn't feel anywhere near two and a half hours long versus Kill Bill Volume One, which was crap.

There are sword fights in The Last Samurai, too. At least two of 'em got a packed house to spontaneously explode with applause and both of 'em managed to advance the story, too. No Volume Too (sic) necessary.

We begin in the late nineteenth century, a period director Edward Zwick seems to like (earlier films include Glory and Legends of the Fall even though Shakespeare in Love is a couple of centuries off the mark<g>). Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise click for StarTalk), Medal of Honor winner for his battle performance at Gettysburg and current spokesman for the Winchester Rifle Company spends his days at the bottom of a bottle, in between gigs showing off his marksmanship and reading the company line off large printed cue cards. Post Gettysburg, Capt. Algren spent a good deal of time as part of the famed Seventh Cavalry and, while he (obviously) didn't go down in the dust with Custer he is haunted by nightmares of the slaughter of native women and children. When military buddy Sgt. Zebulah Gant (Billy Connolly) is hired to train and Westernize the Japanese Army, Algren takes a job assisting his friend, even as hated military rival Col. Benjamin Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) takes another place in the Emperor's service. All Westerners are subservient to general Ohmura (Masato Harada) and, while in service, are conditioned to consider the Samurai to be the last refuge of the politically rebellious. The new army must destroy the Samurai so that Japan can join with the West in modern times. The samurai, all maintaining their loyalty to the Emperor, disagree. Their real life rebellion against the fixed order in 1876-77 serves as the basis for this fictional story.

In this story, culture and politics clash. Japanese army conscripts are prematurely forced into battle to defend railroad interests -- even as Algren forcefully demonstrates their incompetence to Ohmura and the rest of the Japanese military command. Ohmura's decision -- the young Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) is far too unsure of his command decision authority -- is that sheer force of numbers combined with the superior military hardware imported from the West is more than enough to suppress a couple of hundred warriors with swords and bows and arrows. Samurai leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the last great leader steeped in the "old ways" of feudal Japan, would not agree. When the new army is ordered into battle, they find that new weapons are no match for the skilled ways of the warrior. The army is defeated and the Samurai take captives back into the mountains. These include the good captain, whose fighting style was closely watched by Katsumoto during the battle and whose warrior spirit is the one thing keeping his head attached to his shoulders.

So begins Captain Algren's education in the cultural and military customs of a society not his own. Ditto Katsumoto's expansion of his limited knowledge of things Western. Algren finds in the samurai life the balance that has eluded him as a war hero. For the audience, everything gets deep very quickly, even as culture and battle, training and conscious lifting all mix together and spin along towards grand conflicts and battles all saved for the Third Act. Lest you worry that foreign customs and scenery overwhelm the content, occasional humorous relief is provided by translator and photographer Simon Graham (Timothy Spall). Nothing gratuitous or out of character, The Last Samurai completely balances dramatic development and action and its pace never lags. While action rises to the fore, you'll be surprised to find how characters whose presence seemed to be wrapped early in the film come back to play a more important role at the end.

That balance means that nothing about the film begs for the notice of the statue makers, a good thing. We hate it when movies beg. The Last Samurai is the first of a very sparse field of willing competitors to The Lord of the Rings trilogy that more than holds its own, on every level.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Last Samurai, he would have paid . . .


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The Cranky Critic® is a Registered Trademark of, and his website is Copyright © 1995-2003 Chuck Schwartz. All Rights Reserved. Articles and interviews by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2003 Paul Fischer. All Rights Reserved. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of and ©, ®, T their respective studios. Used by permission. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy AwardT(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. All Rights Reserved.

The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.