You've probably read a thousand reviews of Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai by now, which means you've probably also read a thousand "Dances with Cruise" jokes. But have no fear, because I don't intend to make another one. I'll instead find some other tired criticisms to dredge up.
Haunted by the atrocities he saw committed against American Indians (atrocities in which he played no small part), Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a former captain in the United States Cavalry, has turned to the bottle in hopes of escaping his past. While eking out a minor living hawking Remington rifles to rubes at carnivals, Algren is offered a chance to travel to Japan and train an army. This army, composed primarily of men who have spent their lives on farms, is intended to quell an uprising led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a samurai who opposes the Emperor's efforts to modernize (read: westernize) Japan. Algren accepts the offer, and quickly begins training the men in the use of American firearms, but is forced to take them into combat before they are ready. Much of the army is killed, and Algren is taken prisoner by Katsumoto (who wants to learn as much as he can about this new foreign enemy) and then escorted to a village controlled by the samurai's son. Algren spends many months in the village, growing to love the way of life and code of honor Katsumoto and his fellow samurai follow. When the Emperor and his new western allies make one final strike against the samurai, Algren chooses to fight alongside Katsumoto.
There's a truly great movie buried somewhere within The Last Samurai, but you'd have to dig through several layers of Hollywood clichés to find it. What eventually ended up on the screen is a good film, but the mix of thoughtful, intelligent epic and blockbuster star vehicle doesn't completely gel. Had the filmmakers not played it safe on so many occasions, they could have stretched what amounts to a double into at least a triple, if not an in-the-park homerun.
Cruise receives top billing and has his mug plastered squarely in the middle of the poster, but this is really Watanabe's movie. Despite the screenplay's sometimes to-the-contrary structure, Katsumoto is the heart and driving force of the story. Although it deals with the impact of the collision between the East and the West, Algren isn't essential to the movie's plot; you could tell virtually the same tale without him. (Hell, that shot of the telegraph wires blotting out the horizon does more to covey the impact of western influence than anything Algren says or does.) If you're going to include to such a character, he should be employed simply as a conduit into the story for western audiences. At times that is how Algren is used here, and it's generally when the filmmakers expand him beyond this role that they make their major missteps, falling back on the standard tropes of this type of story (including the completely unnecessary subplot regarding Algren and his hostess's mutual attraction, which never comes to any real fruition anyway). And if Algren does have to receive so much of the focus, why not make him a completely amoral bastard rather than a man who wants to de redeemed? I can't speak for anyone else, but I think a battle of wills is always more interesting than a brief skirmish. (I have no proof of this, but I'm willing to wager that Algren had a smaller part in the story before Cruise, who also co-produced the film, signed on. And I'd wager the character was also a bit more shaded.)
Like I said, though, this is still a good film. It's intelligent (for the most part), and impeccably crafted. The performances, including Cruise's, are excellent. The battle sequences are executed with considerable skill (Zwick obviously hasn't forgotten anything since his masterful Glory). The production design and costuming work are topnotch, vividly creating a specific moment and place in time. Despite its length, the movie surprisingly never drags. And master cinematographer John Toll's work is breathtakingly beautiful. Not to take anything away from Russell Boyd's job on Master and Commander, but Toll really should have carried home an Oscar for this film. Honestly, I don't think the visual splendor of the photography can be overstated. If the folks at the New Zealand Board of Tourism really wanted to earn their keep, they'd have Toll shoot every piece of filmed advertisement they cook up.
The 2.35:1 transfer here is identical to that found on the HD DVD. Aside from a couple of minor flaws (two very brief noisy shots, one grainy horizon), it's damned near perfect. Color saturation is exceptional, as are black levels. The level of detail is very impressive. And while I had expected all of the smoke and fog that is present in many scenes to wreak havoc on the image quality, I'm happy to admit I was wrong.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track (available in English or French) is also a knockout. From the bombast of the battles right on down to the moments of almost complete silence, the track performs its assigned task with aplomb. Dialogue is crystal clear, the surrounds are smoothly integrated into the action, bass is deep and tight, and Hans Zimmer's score sounds excellent. A Spanish Dolby Surround track is also included, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Commentary by Director Joel Zwick: Zwick can always be counted on to provide an excellent commentary, and the one he offers up here is detailed, interesting, and very informative. He is rather soft-spoken, though, and at times his voice does has a bit of a lullaby effect, so you'll want to keep some coffee nearby.
History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai (22 minutes): I usually enjoy episodes of this History Channel series, but this one, which plays like an extended commercial for the film, is too much Hollywood (and Cruise) and not enough history.
Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise (18 minutes): The director and star sit down for what is only a mildly interesting discussion of the film's origins and production.
Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey (13 minutes): This is the disc's obligatory fluffy star-centric piece. You'll probably want to skip over this one.
A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert (7 minutes): Kilvert discusses designing and constructing the film's sets on both the Warner backlot and New Zealand locations. There's just one problem with this featurette: it's not long enough.
Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson (6 minutes): Exactly what it says. Dickson, an Oscar winner for her work on The Return of the King, discusses creating the film's many costumes.
Imperial Army Basic Training (5 minutes) takes a brief look at how the extras trained for the battle sequences.
From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons (5 minutes) focuses on the various weapons used in the film.
Edward Zwick: Director's Video Journal (25 minutes) features behind-the-scenes footage, much of which is accompanied by narration from Zwick.
Japan Premieres (7 minutes) includes footage from the film's premiere screenings in Kyoto and Tokyo.
Bushido: The Way of the Warrior is a text-based delineation of the Bushido code.
Two Deleted Scenes (6 minutes total) are also included. Zwick provides optional commentary.
Lastly, you get the film's theatrical trailer.
The Last Samurai is a flawed film, but it gets more right than it does wrong. A nice selection of extras and a stunning technical presentation serve to kick things up a notch or two, so this one earns an easy recommendation.