The Last Samurai

For all the epic visuals and phenomenal production design, Edward Zwick's 19th-century drama of a disillusioned American war hero who finds redemption in the way of the samurai is an honorable film hamstrung by Hollywood conventions. 1876: Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a drunken ruin of the war hero he once was, haunted by his part in the slaughter...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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For all the epic visuals and phenomenal production design, Edward Zwick's 19th-century drama of a disillusioned American war hero who finds redemption in the way of the samurai is an honorable film hamstrung by Hollywood conventions. 1876: Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a drunken ruin of the war hero he once was, haunted by his part in the slaughter of innocent Native Americans and reduced to shilling for the Winchester rifle company. An old army buddy, Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly), approaches him about a better gig. The Japanese government is hiring American military experts to train the imperial army in the ways of modern warfare, and paying handsomely. Despite the fact that taking the job means working with craven Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), whom he despises, Algren accepts. Once in Japan, Algren realizes the dimensions of the game in which he's become a pawn. Nominally governed by a teenaged emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura), Japan is divided between imperial advisors who favor all things new and Western — often to their own benefit — and those who, like samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), counsel respect for feudal traditions. Algren is forced to face Katsumoto's warriors before his troops are ready and is taken prisoner; Katsumoto spares Algren's life so he can learn about his opponents, but it's Algren who gets the real education. Forced to spend the winter in Katsumoto's remote mountain village, Algren gradually learns to respect the samurai code, with its emphasis on loyalty, honor, respect for enemies, acceptance of destiny and vivid appreciation of everyday life. He stops drinking, learns Japanese and trains in the samurai arts, earning Katsumoto's friendship and his warriors' grudging respect. But as the spring draws near, Algren is forced to make hard choices about his place in the world. If ever a film cried out for Akira Kurosawa's pragmatic bleakness, it's this high-minded yet simplistic story of courage and spiritual redemption. Unwilling to offend, Zwick whitewashes a culture in which brutality and contemplative beauty were inextricably intertwined and, afraid to alienate audiences, he shies away from the story's logical downbeat conclusion, replacing it with an "ambiguous" ending that recalls, of all things, THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981). Cruise gives a thoroughly respectable performance, but he can't make a symbol of the failures of Western capitalist thinking into a truly convincing character. The charismatic Watanabe fares better, but the film never broaches the limitations of samurai thinking, with its inflexible emphasis on obedience and fealty to class-bound codes of behavior.

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  • Released: 2003
  • Rating: R
  • Review: For all the epic visuals and phenomenal production design, Edward Zwick's 19th-century drama of a disillusioned American war hero who finds redemption in the way of the samurai is an honorable film hamstrung by Hollywood conventions. 1876: Captain Nathan A… (more)

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