In 1989, Edward Zwick directed the film Glory, in which a group of slaves fought for their country and died on the battlefield with their honor. In 1996, he directed Courage Under Fire, a film which wants to find out if a military captainís actions were honorable enough to get a posthumously award. In both films, the acting was superb, and the battle scenes were a sight to see. Well, in 2003, Zwick has done it again. His latest film, The Last Samurai, is a crowning achievement. It explores the honor of two men and the lengths they would go to stick with it and not lose faith in themselves. Itís gripping, emotional, and laced with a splendid production design. Definitely one of the yearís best films!
Set in San Francisco in 1876, we meet Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) who happens to be drunk while ďon-the-jobĒ. As a veteran of the Civil War, Nathan works at a rifle company and appears on stage demonstrating the use of the gun while telling stories of the war. When the pain of remembering what he did during the war haunts him, he leaves the company only to be found and recruited for a new job by an old friend (Connolly). A group from Japan has arrived in the states in hopes of luring Algren to come over to their country to train their army with the use of modern war technology and stop a band of rebels from interfering with their plans to build a new railroad. Algren is reluctantly to take the job because he hates his former commander (Goldwyn), whoís in charge of the assignment, but when the money is more than what he made at his last job, he accepts.
The Japanese men in Algrenís regiment are young and weak when they are suddenly called to duty so quickly. Algren doesnít think they are ready but has no choice and complies with the decision. Suddenly, while in the woods, the army is attacked by the band of rebels, who are actually Samurai men, led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Algrenís spirit to keep fighting while all is lost and outnumbered actually keeps him alive and captured. While in the captivity of the Samurai men, Algren begins to learn their way of life and vice-versa as Katsumoto learns to speak more English and learn more of ďhis enemyĒ. Katsumoto is fighting to keep the tradition of the samurai alive as he sees the end is near. Along the time Algren is there, heís smitten with the woman who has taken care of his wounds, Katsumotoís sister, Taka (Koyuki).
One can make the assumption that The Last Samurai feels like so many other films of the past, but I beg to differ. While elements of numerous films can be mentioned for comparison, itís the execution of the performances and direction that stands out. With most of his films, the characters that Cruise portrays seem to be lost at first before finding their way to do whatís best, for themselves and for the audienceís liking. Itís no different here, with the exception that Cruise adds more passion and physical strength to his character.
The supporting cast is excellent, notably Ken Watanabeís performance as Katsumoto. Itís astonishing and a role to kill for. As the leader of the samurai, Watanabe plays the role with delight, charisma, and a magnetic force. A powerful presence is the least one can say about him. The cinematography by John Toll is astounding. In fact, with half of the film using less dialogue, the production and set design almost become secondary characters. The difference between the battle scenes that Zwick directed here and others you have seen before is that thereís emotion injected here. When one man goes down, you can feel compassion because you have come to know him and what he and the others are going through. Hans Zimmer has done another great job at reinventing himself with his music, as itís romantic, emotional, and uplifting.
The Last Samurai in theatres nationwide.