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The Last Samurai

Edward Zwick could be a fine filmmaker capable of the thoughtful entertainments he so clearly adores if he could just bleed Hollywood out of his system. That, however, would require a transfusion of prohibitive scale, for Zwick has been too successful for far too long, resulting in a growing facility for lovingly photographed phoniness that has reached an odious apex with The Last Samurai (2003), an irritatingly sanctimonious entry in the "Whitey Learns a Lesson" genre that fetishizes an erstwhile Japanese culture with a patronizing zeal that would warm the bleeding hearts of its most skilled practitioners — e.g. Norman Jewison, Stanley Kramer, and Roland Joffe. Telling the wholly fictional tale of Nathan Algren, a drunk and disgraced Army Captain (brought to life with typical jackhammer subtlety by Tom Cruise) who's charged with training a newly West-friendly Japan's first militia, only to get captured and, eventually, reeducated by a regiment of the country's reining security force, the samurai, Zwick's picture is larded with worthwhile notions of battlefield honor, but winds up expressing them unconvincingly through the impossibly saintly personage of its titular warrior class. It's part panegyric, part morality play, and it's neither to a remotely effective degree, which is sad because lost in the narrative's morass of swell intentions is a moving story of an outmoded public servant, Katsumoto (the magnetic Ken Watanabe), whose undying loyalty to his Emperor inextricably leads him, in a cruel stroke of irony, to death at his master's hands. Unfortunately, this history is merely a richly detailed backdrop against which Zwick dramatizes his treacly Chicken Soup for the Rich Man's Soul. As demonstrated in the much better Glory and Courage Under Fire, Zwick is an adept hand with major battle sequences. Working with one of the best cinematographers in the business, John Toll (who once again brings along his love of Welles's Chimes at Midnight as he did in Braveheart), he gets the fury and frightening chaos of hand-to-hand combat up on the screen, suggesting the conflicting notions of nobility and savagery that make warfare such powerfully seductive cinema. Unfortunately, these sequences are tethered to a human drama devoid of resonance. Though just as ugly in its patronization, Glory at least found Zwick spending some time developing his African-American characters so that their sacrifice meant something in the end. But this was a luxury afforded him due in part to that film's absence of a movie star pulling dubious double duty as a producer. It's not enough that Algren's tale is the hackneyed journey of a tortured man finding redemption in an idealized representation of an exotic culture; Cruise is also at his shrill, self-important worst, hamming up his drunk scenes with embarrassingly unconvincing relish, and attacking the role's physicality with a dilettante's soulless enthusiasm. More objectionable than vanity, though, is the film's pandering glorification of the samurai, who, as a cursory glance at the historical record will bear out, were neither saints nor savages. Cannily, and disingenuously, blaming their extermination solely on Western modernity, Zwick gets to score lazy points against the evils of American-style capitalism while promoting a perfect, Zen-like civilization that never existed. Warner presents The Last Samurai in an outstanding anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with remarkably vivid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras on this two-disc "Special Edition" include a feature-length commentary from director Zwick and a host of featurettes, including "Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey" (13 min.), Edward Zwick: Director's Video Journal" (26 min.), "Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise" (18 min.), The History Channel's "History vs. Hollwood" (22 min.), "A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilian Kilvert" (7 min.), "Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson" (6 min.), "Imperial Army Basic Training" (6 min.), and "From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons of The Last Samurai" (5 min.). There also are two deleted scenes with optional commentary, footage from the film's Japanese premiere, text of the Bushido Code, and a theatrical trailer. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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