Once, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) risked his life for honour and country, but, in the years since the Civil War, the world has changed and Algren has become a lost man. Practicality has replaced bravery, self-interest has taken the place of sacrifice and honour is nowhere to be found – especially out West where his role in the Indian Campaigns ended in disillusionment and sorrow.
Far away in Japan, another soldier sees his way of life about to disintegrate. He is Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the last leader of an ancient line of warriors, the Samurai, who dedicated their lives to serving emperor and country. Just as the modern way encroached upon the American West, it also engulfed traditional Japan. The telegraph lines and railroads that brought progress now threaten those values and codes by which the Samurai have lived and died for centuries. But Katsumoto will not go without a fight.
The paths of these two warriors converge when the young Emperor of Japan, wooed by American interests who covet the growing Japanese market, hires Algren to train Japan’s first modern army. But as the Emperor’s advisors attempt to eradicate the Samurai in preparation for a more Westernized and trade-friendly government, Algren finds himself unexpectedly impressed and influenced by his encounters with the Samurai, reminding him of who he once was. Algren now finds himself at the center of a struggle between two eras and two worlds, with only his sense of honour to guide him.
I’ve been a big fan of Tom Cruise ever since I saw him in Risky Business two decades ago. I know a lot of people have issues with him as an actor, but I’ve always admired the determination and drive he puts into most of his roles even if they come off as variations of Tom Cruise playing, well, Tom Cruise.
Unfortunately, Tom playing Tom does not work in this film. Cruise’s performance isn’t bad (it picks up a bit in the second half) – he’s just unconvincing as a shell-shocked Civil War veteran. Picture his terrific turn, as Vietnam Veteran Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, with about half of the intensity or emotion and you’ll get the idea.
Ken Watanabe, delivering a performance worthy of high praise and possible Oscar consideration, is the real star of this film. His performance as Katsumoto is everything that Cruise’s Algren should have been – brooding, intense, dangerous and uncertain. Above all, through his character of Katsumoto, Watanabe is in possession of an ability to connect to the viewer on an emotional level.
John Logan’s screenplay is another problem. The story has some intriguing elements to it, but far too often it leaves the viewer thinking of two other, better Civil War era epics – Glory (directed by this film’s helmer, Edward Zwick) and Dances With Wolves. Anyone who has seen the former will recognize the blatantly identical scenes used here, while those familiar with the Kevin Costner film will be feeling some serious dj vu approximately an hour in, which will in turn give way to another new feeling: predictability.
It’s a credit to Zwick that the production is able to overcome such debits to deliver a film that is, when all’s said and done, somewhat entertaining. He may not be able to do much with Cruise or the film’s aura of predictability, but Zwick does make the best out of the story’s strongest elements – the observations on the clash of cultures, east and west, old and new, and how they affect Katsumoto and his village. When the film focuses on these, it comes to life.
With the help of John Toll’s beautiful cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score, Zwick also brings an epic pageantry to the battle scenes that bookend Algren’s time spent in Japan. The battles, while not on a level of an Akira Kurosawa film or even those found in Glory, are both brutal and handsome at the same time and manage to get the job done.
Much like its main characters, The Last Samurai is in possession of many honourable qualities as well as flaws. If you can overlook the debits, you will find the film to be an agreeable night out at the flicks.