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Last Samurai, The
One of the most elaborate films of 2003, Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai featured somewhat of an unlikely premise: Tom Cruise wielding a sword in 19th Century Japan. I'll admit, the trailer didn't exactly capture my complete attention, even though I'm admitted lover of samurai-related films. Among other plot similarities, it closely resembled that of Dances With Wolves, save for the obvious change of scenery. Having directed both Glory (1989) and Legends Of The Fall (1994), Zwick was obviously treading on familiar ground with this dramatic adventure. Here's a quick synopsis (spoiler warning):
Cruise plays the part of Nathan Algren, a veteran captain of the Civil War who has become anything but a patriot. Haunted by his actions during the war, he turns to alcohol and solitude, earning money by participating in shooting demonstrations. Eventually, Algren is propositioned for a very unlikely new job: to train the Emperor's Army in Japan. He reluctantly accepts, if for nothing but a steady paycheck. During training, he sees these men for what they really were: common peasants and farmers who were unprepared for the harshness of combat. This is evident very quickly, as his regiment is quickly ousted by a band of Samurai warriors. Although most of his men are killed in action, the fierceness and determination of Algren literally keep him alive, as he is taken prisoner. During the next few seasons, he gradually adapts to the ways of Samurai, quickly learning the language and lifestyle. Eventually, the events that follow raise some very important questions about human nature and loyalty. After all, should one be bound to the culture they were raised in, or do they have the right to embrace another?
Obviously, the basic plot elements are similar to the films already mentioned. Nathan Algren bears a strong similarity to John Dunbar, the Army Lieutenant who adapts to Native American life in Dances With Wolves. The army of soldiers unprepared for war takes a page right out of Zwick's own book, as seen in Glory (not to mention Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai!). Yes, it's true that on more than one occasion, you'll be reminded of films you've seen before. In fact, this familiar ground is what holds The Last Samurai back from being the true epic that it wants to be.
Of course, that doesn't mean it's a bad film. On the contrary, I found The Last Samurai to be quite enjoyable from start to finish. The characters were interesting, the cinematography was fantastic, and the action sequences were fast-paced and exciting. I also found the performances to be uniformly strong: while many critics shared my initial disbelief of Cruise as a samurai warrior, I found that he possessed the necessary amount of charisma and intelligence to pull it off nicely. Although he still wouldn't have been my first choice for the role, I was quite surprised at his ability overall. Even more impressive is Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto, the leader of the Samurai, whose fire and passion help create one of the more memorable characters of recent memory.
At roughly 150 minutes in length, The Last Samurai has the feel of a genuine epic, but it occasionally walks the line of spreading itself too thin. For example, there is an excess of voice-over narration that could have easily been cut, as the events are generally well-defined enough. Additionally, there are a few subplots and other scenes that could have easily been cut, which could have resulted in a more focused direction. For example, the trailer might have you believe this was an all-out romantic drama, as Algren falls for the wife of a warrior he killed in the first battle (once again, slightly reminiscent of Dances With Wolves). However, this relationship proves to be little more than a minor subplot, and the romantic chemistry between the two isn't developed enough to add much to the story. In my opinion, the film would have been stronger without this unnecessary tease of romance.
On the other hand, the bond between most other characters is perhaps the film's greatest strength. For example, the friendship between Algren and the woman's son is much more appropriate to the tone of the story, and it's here where we see Algren's most compassionate side. Additionally, the gradual friendship between Algren and Katsumoto is equally moving: both can identify with the other's spirit and devotion, even though their cultures are nearly opposite. To me, the strongest scenes don't occur on the battlefield; it's the introspective, quiet times that prove to be the most memorable.
With rich cinematography, stunning compositions, and elaborate costume design, The Last Samurai covers the visual bases nicely...even though we've seen certain elements of the story before. Still, it's hard not to get caught up in all the dramatic action and character relationships, as this is a well-intentioned film that really aims to entertain. The Last Samurai is both cinematically beautiful and brutally violent, and pulls no punches during several truly graphic battle sequences. However, it walks the line between action and drama quite well, much like the films that have obviously served as inspiration. Even with its faults, Edward Zwick and company have succeeded in creating a film that has some truly great moments, and the balance of it all is what makes The Last Samurai work.
Not surprisingly, films like these are perfectly suited for the DVD format. With a reported budget of $120 million, the elaborate technical presentation is faithfully converted for home theater viewing. Additionally, the extensive design and production lends itself to some great bonus features. Presented by the good folks over at Warner Bros., this 2-disc set is a fantastic package that really covers all the bases.
This problem is thankfully corrected on Disc 2, which contains a series of featurettes about the film's design and production, among other things. First up is the very dramatically titled Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey (13 minutes), which is a somewhat brief discussion with the actor: it's a little on the fluffy side, but a quality effort nonetheless. Next up, we have a Director's Video Journal (27 minutes), which focuses strictly on behind-the-scenes footage, the majority of which is narrated by Zwick himself. Also here is a featurette entitled Making an Epic (18 minutes), which is basically a conversation with both Zwick and Cruise. While it treads on somewhat similar ground as the first two extras, the two have an obvious respect for one another and are ready and willing to share many personal experiences. Next up is a short documentary from The History Channel, History vs. Hollywood (22 minutes). This features a few too many film clips for my liking, but there are some great moments here that help broaden the scope of the film.
Moving on, we're treated to four brief featurettes that focus more of the design and details of The Last Samurai. First up, we hear from production designer Lily Kilvert in A World of Detail (8 minutes). On a similar note, we also get a look at the costume design in Silk and Armor (7 minutes), with a nice little presentation by designer Ngila Dickson. Also here is Imperial Army Basic Training (6 minutes), a self-explanatory look at how the many extras learned the ropes of combat. Another brief featurette focuses on the weaponry used in the film, entitled From Soldier to Samurai (5 minutes).
Winding things down, we're also treated to Bushido: Way of the Warrior, a text supplement that details the seven principles of the Samurai code. Also here are two Deleted Scenes, "The Beheading" and "Algren & Katsumodo" (6 minutes total). The former also includes a bit of behind-the-scenes footage, and both feature optional commentary by Edward Zwick. There's also some footage of the Japanese Premieres in Kyoto and Tokyo (7 minutes), which took place in November 2003. We also get the film's Theatrical Trailer and a few text-based DVD-Rom extras, most notably a more detailed look at Samrurai Code and discipline.
Overall, these supplements are wonderfully varied, but some of them could have gone into greater detail, particularly the four that dealt with the production design and other such details of the film. As a sidenote, these are all available with French subtitles (strangely enough, English subtitles are absent). Also of note is the presentation of these extras: unfortunately, they're all shot in 4:3 fullscreen, which seems somewhat awkward compared to the film's aspect ratio. For one, I always appreciate when featurettes are presented in widescreen, but I guess that's not a common practice yet. Still, I can't complain as to the quality of the extras: this is a nicely packed 2-disc set, and fans will really enjoy every aspect of this production!
The Last Samurai is a solid example of how films should be treated on DVD, both old and new. Sure, the supplements aren't as informative and extensive as in the Lord of the Rings 4-Disc sets or even the Black Hawk Down Deluxe Edition, but this is a well-rounded package that presents the film in its best possible light. While it's obvious that The Last Samurai isn't the most original movie in recent memory, there's plenty to like about it (and not just the sword fights!). If you haven't seen this film yet, I'd really encourage you to check out this excellent 2-disc set…it might just win you over. Of course, fans of the film will really enjoy this release: it's solid in every department, and will stand as one of the better releases of 2004. Highly Recommended.
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Randy Miller III is a part-time cartooning instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.