In 2003, Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai earned four Oscar nominations, but went home empty-handed. Then, after it’s obligatory run on TNT, the Tom Cruise vehicle disappeared into relative obscurity.
And that’s too bad, because the thoughtful film, which charts the semi-true end of a noble band of Japanese warriors, is at once a visual feast and a kickass action flick. What’s more, it’s a showcase for some of the best supporting actors working in Hollywood today.
Yeah, I Know, Some Of This Has Been Done Before
Any discussion of the film has to begin by having an honest discussion of its flaws, and admittedly, The Last Samurai has its share.
You’ve seen this fish-out-of-water story once or twice before. A troubled American soldier finds himself, through fates guiding hand, finding himself stuck in a foreign place (in this case, that would be a samurai village during the winter). While at first hostile to the new culture, the newcomer learns to appreciate the exotic and confront his inner demons (aka, killing lots of Native Americans) on the path to becoming a better man. It falls somewhere in film history between Dances With Wolves and Avatar. Like Dances With Wolves, Samurai also sets this personal renaissance against the backdrop of the end of an era, during the closing days of a proud, noble culture. So, yeah, it’s familiar.
At more than two and a half hours long, though, the story’s familiarity can be a little tiresome. Of course, what did you expect from an Edward Zwick film? The guy directed Legends of the Fall and Defiance. He never met a shot of a character looking pensively into the distance he didn’t love immediately. Also: nature porn (but more on that later).
Finally, the film’s tone is a mite uneven. The plot is filled with men doing everything in their power to avoid violence, who see its utility but despise its outcome. Yet, when the shit goes down the film’s action scenes are exquisitely shot, clearly reveling in the carnage. They’re like postcards to righteous murder.
Of course, there are worse sins for a film to commit than having a safe story and a self-indulgent attitude. The well-crafted bits that lay at the core of The Last Samurai, however, create a cumulative film effort that’s extremely watchable (with the right expectations).
Watch It Like It’s a Work of Fiction
For anyone complaining that the film is extremely inaccurate in — among other details — its saintly portrayal of the samurai and their motives, just go on ahead and chill out. While Ken Watanabe’s Katsumoto is based on a real life rebellion leader, the film isn’t really about that dude. Shortly after the film’s release, Zwick himself said that it was absolutely his intention to idealize the samurai in the film, saying, “It’s as important to celebrate what’s poetic and idealized as it is to understand the reality.”
For that matter, The Last Samurai is steeped in poetry. It’s a celebration of what the ideal samurai may have been rather than an honest portrayal of the truth: samurai were fallible people, too. The point is, The Last Samurai is a story about the people embroiled in the events that unfold; it’s not about accurately recreating a specific time in history.
So, when you’re settling in for a revisit of The Last Samurai, you’ll need to go in with the proper expectations. Try not to focus on the plot of the film so much. Or the pseudo historical context. Focus instead on character development, cinematography, and the sweet, sweet action.
Its Freaking Gorgeous Across the Board
Remember the previous mention of Edward Zwick’s cinematic fixation on nature? Well, it’s in full effect in The Last Samurai. Shot in New Zealand (curiously, not in Japan!), the film luxuriates in its natural surroundings as Tom Cruise’s Algren comes to sympathize with Katsumoto and his band of moral outlaws, the titular last samurai (because samurai can be plural, too).
Several long moments of the film are devoted to long shots of natural splendor. This is meant to reinforce the inherently natural place the samurai have in the world, while simultaneously reflecting Algrens earned inner peace. Also, it’s real pretty to look at, so its little wonder that one of the film’s four Oscar nominations was for Art Direction.
Another of those nominations came for costume design, owing to the painstakingly intricate detail of the film’s armor and the grand opulence of the imperial court. In short, every single frame of the film could be a painting in and of itself. It’s both lovingly and artfully crafted footage that never fails to stun.
Don’t Worry So Much About Tom Cruise
In his role as the reformed soldier who comes to appreciate the value of samurai culture too late to really preserve it, Tom Cruise delivers a solid performance, despite having to deal with a mega-boring character. No amount of heavy-shouldered sighing or crazy-eyed combat can really bring the character to life. Though, as a gateway to the story, he is more than serviceable.
The real star of the show are (shock) the samurai, the men and women who make up the village and go about their everyday lives with a resolve and the outward serenity that white dudes in Hollywood like to assign to Others. In their commitment to their routine, to their strict moral code (it’s called Bushido!), to their simple way of life, Zwick creates an idealized portrait of an extinct way of life that’s as mesmerizing as a zen garden.