[box cover]

The Last Samurai

Warner Home Video

Starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall,
Tony Goldwyn, Billy Connolly, Hiroyuki Sanada,
and Koyuki

Written by John Logan and Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz
Directed by Edward Zwick

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

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, re-educated by a regiment of the country's reining security force, the samurai, Zwick's picture is larded with worthwhile notions of battlefield honor, but it 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.

The film begins in America, where a booze-addled Algren is shilling rifles for the Winchester Company at touring trade shows, relaying the tales of his plain-taming days, during which he served under the legendary Indian killer, Col. Custer. Algren, so haunted by these vivid and bloody memories, can barely function, but he's recruited anyway by a former comrade, Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), and a group of enterprising Japanese statesmen to help organize their foundering military as a gesture of American generosity meant to expand and strengthen the potentially lucrative trade relationship between the two countries.

Once overseas, Algren unsteadily sets to training his inept Japanese conscripts, who he is forced to lead prematurely into battle against the rebelling samurai. Ignoring Bagley's suggestion that he hang back and observe their performance, Algren honorably fights alongside his unskilled soldiers, who get absolutely slaughtered by their ferocious enemy combatants. In a moment of great sadness, a colleague is killed. But Algren fights to the last, staving off death, one murdered samurai after another, until he finally is subdued by their impressed leader, Katsumoto.

Rather than execute the brave foreigner, Katsumoto lugs Algren back to their idyllic village and arranges for him to be cared for by the family of a highly respected samurai felled by Algren on the field of battle. After a torturous cold-turkey alcohol withdrawal, Algren begins his series of "conversations" with his captor, consisting initially of a simple relaying of names and growing to a full-on cultural exchange where East meets West to enlightening and occasionally "hilarious" effect. It's during this tenuous time that Algren also comes to win over the grudging admiration of the children whose father he killed, though it proves tougher going when attempting to ingratiate himself with the other samurai. This respect is finally attained through a brutal, rain-swept episode in which the tough and prideful Algren continually staggers to his feet after being repeatedly beaten into the mud by the village's meanest samurai (outside of Katsumoto, characterizations strike no deeper than this). It's an inspiring moment of Jason Vorhees-like persistence, after which Algren begins his crash combat training with his curious hosts.

Just as Algren is beginning to achieve a sense of peace in this utopian mountain retreat (it's probably not a stretch to imagine morale-obsessed corporations investing in such tranquil colonies to motivate their employees), Katsumoto releases him back into the venal wild, as the samurai return to civilization to establish their place in the new governing council. Though the young Emperor Meiji is deferential and practically worshipful of Katsumoto, he also is powerless to fight the council's decision to end the samurais' long service to the country in favor of the now fully armed and organized militia. Katsumoto and his men therefore are asked to relinquish their swords, which, for a samurai, is akin to surrendering one's soul. They refuse, and, with Algren in willful tow, skirmish their way back to the countryside where they await the final crushing onslaught of the superior numbered Japanese military.

*          *          *

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 that's 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. Cruise demonstrating his marginal proficiency at swordplay winds up being as thrilling as watching Richard Gere tap dance.

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. Though the film benefits from a surface verisimilitude, courtesy of production designer Lilly Kilvert and costumer Ngila Dickson, that is absolutely astounding; its lush, forgiving depiction of the samurai village and lifestyle is as laughably fraudulent as the sterile, strife-free television neighborhoods the Cleavers and the Nelsons. Meanwhile, listening to Watanabe's mellifluous intonation of the Bushido Code, one can easily conjure up an image of Zwick flipping through a pocket-sized volume of affirmations while being chauffeured to a pitch-meeting.

History may be open to interpretation. Film may be a lie. But there's a difference between subjectivity and being full of it.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video presents The Last Samurai in an outstanding anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with remarkably vivid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The film might be a stinker, but that hasn't stopped the studio from slapping together a fantastic two-disc "Special Edition" for their $100 million-plus investment. Extras begin on Disc One with a very listenable feature-length commentary from Zwick recorded a few days after the film's opening, and finding the director in a surprisingly measured and self-critical mood. If only he'd brought that same discernment to the development of the picture.

Disc Two is stuffed with features, starting with "Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey" (13 min.), a wince-worthy bit of self-praise in which the film's star discusses his lengthy training and appreciation of the Bushido Code. Somewhat more interesting is "Edward Zwick: Director's Video Journal" (26 min.), a collection of on-set video to which Zwick adds post-production reflection. It's an occasionally illuminating journey through principal photography in which the director imparts a few worthwhile insights on the difficulty of commanding such an enormous production. Still, it'd be nice if Zwick (or other directors who've contributed similar "journals" to DVDs) would allow the viewer to see moments of conflict, if only to liven things up a bit, since it gets awfully boring watching such harmonious footage (though it's kind of in keeping with Zwick's hopelessly anodyne film). Most insufferable is the mutual back-patting of "Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise" (18 min.), where the two artists praise each others enthusiasm and genius. The only halfway interesting insight yielded by this featurette is Zwick's discussion of how he wants to make adventure films with ideas on the level of The Great Escape, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, three works utterly bereft of The Last Samurai's crippling sentimentality. Also included is The History Channel's charitable "History vs. Hollywood" episode (22 min.), supposedly dedicated to separating myth from fact, but serving largely as promotional piece. There is one brief mention of the samurai actually representing Japan's repressive past, with Meiji's Army being the "good guys," but there's no significant examination of this view.

There are also some brief production featurettes, starting with "A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert" (7 min.), which quickly shows how the designer suggested 19th century Japan in New Zealand and on Warner's Burbank backlot. "Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson" (6 min.) finds the Oscar-winning costumer describing the joy of not working on The Lord of the Rings, while "Imperial Army Basic Training" (6 min.) includes footage of the production's extras going through boot camp. Finally, there's "From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons of The Last Samurai," which shows off the swords, cannons, and Gatling guns built especially for the film.

Rounding out the set are two interesting deleted scenes. The first features what would've been Algren's introduction to the samurai — he witnesses a recalcitrant citizen being beheaded by one of Katsumoto's men — as well as an amusing argument between Algren and his captor. The text of the Bushido Code is offered, as is footage of the film's premiere in Japan. The DVD-ROM feature will guide one to the official website. The theatrical trailer also is included.

— Clarence Beaks

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