"Too many mind. Mind sword, mind people watch, mind enemy. Too many mind. No mind."
Everybody's favorite Scientologist jackass Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a drunken has-been whoring his reputation as a war hero for the Winchester rifle company and despising himself for it. Offered an opportunity to make good money in Japan, where the young Emperor is desperate to Westernize his country and needs military advisors to train his army in modern warfare, Algren takes the cash, expecting to put in little effort and drink himself into a sake stupor. Things seem to be going well in this regard until the battalion under his tutelage is rushed too soon into conflict with a band of rebellious samurai terrorizing the countryside. In a battle pitting the modern world against the ancient, the modern gets its ass handed to it and Algren is taken captive. Fortunately, his resilience impresses the head samurai (Ken Watanabe), who allows Algren to heal up and detox, and then slowly teaches him about their way of life. The two men butt heads at first but soon learn mutual admiration, while Algren's sensitive soul melts the heart of a beautiful native babe. Soon enough the White man becomes an honorary samurai and helps his new friends to defend their culture from his old cronies. Naturally, many valuable life lessons are learned in the process.
Directed by Edward Zwick, Hollywood's go-to guy for any movie involving historical battle scenes, The Last Samurai is certainly a handsomely mounted production, replete with fabulously ornate costumes and sets. Everything about the film is beautiful, from John Toll's glossy cinematography to the gorgeous locks of Cruise's hair flowing in the wind behind him as he charges forward on his majestic steed. If only the story weren't so clichéd and predictable. Even setting aside the obvious Dance With Wolves comparisons, the exotic-foreign-culture-through-a-White-man's-eyes tale is trite and melodramatic. The weepy conclusion featuring preposterous blaze-of-glory heroics and many teary-eyed enemies is especially eye rolling.
Nonetheless, the movie delivers the big Hollywood glitz expected of it. No matter how much of a horse's ass he makes out of himself in public, Tom Cruise is still undeniably a real movie star and knows how to carry a film like this. The movie's hefty budget is clearly evident on screen, and Zwick expertly choreographs the rousing battle footage. The picture has samurai, and ninjas, and swordplay, and decapitations, and roaring volleys of cannon-fire blasted into the midst of charging armies, and what could possibly be wrong with all of that? Though not a great film, The Last Samurai (or at least specific parts of it) has enough entertainment value, sometimes despite itself, to be worthy of a few viewings now and again when the mood strikes.
The HD DVD:
Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD. If a movie were to receive a higher score on the DVD scale than the HD scale, that does not necessarily mean that the DVD disc looks better than the HD disc. It just means that the DVD compares better in relation to other DVDs than the HD disc compares to other HD discs.
To be honest, the first couple of shots in the movie concerned me. I'd heard good things about this disc's picture quality, but the opening footage of the ocean looks like it may have come from some grainy photography with heavy DNR filtering applied. I started to worry. As soon as the scene changes, however, there's a dramatic improvement from that point forward. Truly, amazingly dramatic. The rest of the movie looks fantastic, some of the best imagery I've yet seen in my home theater.
The movie has some breathtakingly picturesque cinematography, and the HD DVD captures every subtle nuance of it. Colors are vividly reproduced down to the minute variances in each actor's skin complexion. Black level, shadow detail, and contrast range are just about perfect, and deliver a nice sense of depth to the image. The high degree of fine object detail really brings out the textures in the intricate samurai armor. You'll find yourself actually counting the whiskers on Tom Cruise's face. Scenes with complex elements such as smoke and fog are rendered without a trace of compression artifacting. This is simply an excellent looking disc and a fine showcase for the new format.
Since this is a launch title, I hesitate to rate the disc too highly. Future releases will only improve as the mastering process advances. If I have to nit-pick, there are a couple of wide shots where the picture looks a little soft, but of course this may have also been present in the original photography. In exactly two shots I thought I might have seen some very minor edge ringing, unless the effect is actually a lighting silhouette. Both problems are so subtle that I'm not sure the disc is at fault. As mentioned earlier, the opening shots look a little dupey, as do a few at the closing. Whatever the reason for that, it's hardly worth complaining about in light of how fantastic everything else looks.
The Last Samurai HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
A French dub track is also available in DD+ 5.1, as well as a Spanish dub in Dolby 2.0 Surround. Optional subtitles include English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish. All of the optional subtitles are authored to appear half-in/half-out of the 2.35:1 movie image, which is very annoying for many front projection users. The movie also has default English subtitles for non-English dialogue scenes that appear within entirely the 2.35:1 area, however.
All of the supplements from the DVD appear to have carried over, including the text-based ROM material (now included with the regular features). Your tolerance for most of these features will be entirely dependant on how much you liked the film and how much you can stand Tom Cruise. Frankly, my patience wore thin pretty quickly.