The Last Samurai

Director    Edward Zwick
Starring    Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe
4 stars


3rd January 2005

So, Tom Cruise's Oscar-vehicle is in town once more and this time, he's hoping to swipe a golden-bonced statuette with The Last Samurai - an epic tale charting the fall of feudal Japan and its eventual westernisation. Thrice nominated (and once unfairly beaten for Born On The 4th Of July), Cruise seemingly carries an air of Oscar desperation around him these days, perhaps to prove to the critics that he's having no trouble in keeping up with his ex-wife? Thankfully for the Cruiser, The Last Samurai is in with a good shot at snagging him his first Academy Award, as well as at least a few other statues in the process.

Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, an alcoholic former war hero who has turned to the bottle to forget his past, namely his involvements in the Indian campaigns in which his battalion needlessly slaughtered women and children against his will. When he's offered a hefty wage to train an inexperienced Japanese army against Samurai adversaries Algren jumps at the chance, and before long, he's leading his befuddled battalion into conflict against the enemy. Defeated and captured, Algren's life is spared by Ken Watanabe's Samurai leader Katsumoto and after being detained in their village, he soon learns to respect and honor the way of Bushido, the Samurai code. When the American-funded Japanese forces attack again, Algren must decide on which side his allegiance lies.

Tom Cruise lies at the core of this movie and considering his appearance in almost every scene of the 154 minute running time, his role is vital to whether or not the movie works. Thankfully, Cruise's ice-white grin is mostly kept under wraps and he portrays Algren as an earthy, honorable warrior with true grit and steely-eyed determination. Cruise gives the role depth and humility, his scenes with his Japanese hosts are a particularly impressive as he struggles to contain the guilt of killing the father of the house in battle - here, he is a million miles away from the Mavericks and the Jerry Maguires of the past, and proves he's every inch an Oscar candidate. Alongside him as the brave Samurai leader is Ken Watanabe who holds up well against the Cruisemeister in their scenes together, and towards the tail-end of the film gives a real, heart-felt performance. It's a shame that the rest of the cast, including Billy Connolly and Timothy Spall, aren't given enough room to shine against the two main characters.

As big a star as he is, Cruise has to share the screen with something of similar beauty - the truly stunning Japanese and New Zealand-based locations. Katsumoto's village has been wonderfully crafted and looks authentic down to the last rice paddy. The set and costume design is impeccable here and you never feel for one second that you're looking at anything but late 19th Century Japan. Cinematographer John Toll has worked wonders making The Last Samurai look just as beautiful as its leading man, even when the epic battle scenes are spilling blood and bullets on the dew-soaked grass.

Ah, the battle scenes - it's amazing how quickly a once exciting set-piece can seem so ordinary after overuse, but obviously no one told director Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) as he's managed to shoot some of the finest conflicts caught on film this year. We've had the mechanised onslaught of the Matrix Revolutions, the bloody-stumped finale of Kill Bill and the swords and sorcery of Return of the King to contend with in the last 12 weeks alone, but with the help of stunt co-ordinator Nick Powell (the man behind the swordplay in Gladiator amongst others), Zwick orchestrates some sweeping battles scenes that will send shivers down your spine. As well as the superbly executed finale where the steel of the Samurai is placed up against the superior firepower of the American Howitzers, the most effective battle sees Algren leading his wobbly Japanese army against the mighty Samurai in a fog-drenched forest. The sight of the Samurai army in full armour galloping at full speed towards their enemy brandishing their blades is as chilling as anything you'll see this year. It's good old-fashioned grit that makes these battle scenes a success, all without swooping Fell beasts, twittering robot Sentinels and Uma Thurman in a catsuit. They are worth the admission price alone.

So, does Tom finally deserve his Oscar? All signs would have to point to yes, although his performance isn't necessarily what makes The Last Samurai essential viewing - you've got Zwick to thank for that. Despite some dicey CG additions to the later battle scenes, a few historical inaccuracies here and there (it wouldn't be a Hollywood film without them) and perhaps too great a sense of self-worth, The Last Samurai excels at everything it has attempted - it works as both an action film and a weightier piece of cinema, and shouldn't be ignored in any category by the Academy come February.

More:  Action  Drama  Ninjas  Samurai
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