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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Last Samurai (Widescreen)
The Last Samurai (Widescreen)
Warner Bros. // R // May 4, 2004
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted April 24, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

"The Last Samurai" is a stunning, gorgeously filmed epic. The picture offers fine performances, breathtaking cinematography from John Toll (who can always be counted on to deliver incredible work), amazing production design and superior direction. The picture isn't without a few minor flaws, but it's a chance for director Ed Zwick to return to helming after an overlong absence and, more often than not, the picture is an involving drama.

The picture opens in 1876, with Col. Nathan Algren (Cruise) stuck in his sorrows doing promotional appearances for rifles. He's visited one day by the Japanese government, who want to pay him to train their soldiers American fighting techniques. Offered the kind of money in six months that he would otherwise get in three years, Algren accepts - and is joined by Zebulah Grant (Billy Connolly, brilliant) and Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn), the latter being his former commander, who he still resents after an incident years ago.

Despite training, Algren feels that the soldiers are not ready to take on the army of Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a rebel leader. Against his protests, the troops are mounted anyway, leading to a savage defeat against the hands of the samurai men. Algren is captured and brought to Katsumoto's camp in the mountains.

At first, Algren refuses to speak, but the barriers begin to fall. Katsumoto tells Algren that he has kept him alive to learn more about him, and asks him to help him learn English. The two learn more about each other's cultures and gain respect for one another. As the days and months pass, Algren's loyalty shifts to the samurai. He learns their codes, their culture, their language and even fights with them during an attack by ninjas. When he is eventually granted passage to go back to his men, he leaves faced with a decision as to who he will stand with when the inevitable battle between Katsumoto's army and the Emperor's men that he (and others, in his absence) has trained.

Despite the fact that Edward Zwick has largely succeeded in making an epic that doesn't feel like an epic, there still could have been a couple of minutes lost here-and-there in the middle section, which never drags, but sometimes feels as if it could also move past a couple moments a little sooner. Tom Cruise's casting also seems a bit off, but the actor manages to offer an intense, enjoyable performance. He never disappears into the character or is entirely convincing, but it's still a very good lead performance. Timothy Spall and Billy Connolly provide fine lead support, while Ken Watanabe's performance as Katsumoto got the Oscar nod it rightly deserved. A lot of the minor supporting players do a very fine job making us care about their characters in the limited amount of time they have on-screen.

The film's look is stunning; incredible landscapes are captured beautifully by Toll's expert cinematography; the production and costume design are magficent and fight scenes are superbly choreographed and filmed. Zwick's direction is also wonderful and the film really earns its powerful and emotional moments rather than attempting to try and be manipulative. It's a little long in a few spots and I'm not sure Cruise was the best choice for the role, but "The Last Samurai" was otherwise an engaging and well-made drama.


VIDEO: "The Last Samurai" is presented by Warner Brothers in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Aside from a few minor concerns, this was largely a very good presentation. Sharpness and detail seemed very good, if not outstanding. The very slight softness may have been an intentional aspect of the film's look.

The presentation's only considerable problem was the presence of some very light edge enhancement. These appearances were only brief, and certainly didn't cause much of a distraction. The print looked terrific, with no scratches, marks, dirt or other debris. While that's certainly an expectation for such a recent movie, as some DVD presentations can occasionally show, that's not always the case. Compression artifacts were not spotted. The film's naturalistic color palette appeared crisp and vivid, with no smearing or other faults.

SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was satisfactory. The battle sequences scattered through the film put the surrounds to fine use, with explosions, gunfire and other sound effects. Hans Zimmer's score also gets some minor reinforcement from the rear speakers. I was, however, a little bit disappointed that the surrounds weren't put to more use for ambience and other subtle touches. Zimmer's score sounded fierce and dynamic, while dialogue and sound effects remained clear. Bass was generally deep, although it wasn't quite as forceful as I'd expect in some of the film's more intense sequences.

EXTRAS: Director Edward Zwick offers a very informative, yet rather low-key commentary for the length of the movie. Zwick's commentary goes deeply into the history and research that went into the film, the casting of the picture, shooting on location and character/story issues. Zwick's somewhat flat energy throughout the commentary may make the experience drag slightly at times, but the director certainly covers a great deal of ground throughout the 154-minute running time.

Once one moves to the second disc, you'll find Zwick doing a commentary for behind-the-scenes footage in the 26-minute "Director's Video Diary". We see scenes being filmed and worked out, while Zwick also points out actors, crew and locations. Next is the clip-heavy "Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey", which has interviews with Cruise and others, chatting about the film and what Cruise went through to prepare for the role. Okay enough, but noticably promotional and not terribly in-depth.

Somewhat better is "Making an Epic", a 17-minute interview between Cruise and director Ed Zwick. Also cut together with a fair amount of movie and behind-the-scenes clips, we do get a better understanding here of the development of the picture and the production, as well as elements of the story and characters. "History vs. Hollywood" is a 22-minute piece that's about this specific picture, but still rather familiar in structure: while it attempts to explore the differences between the film and real history, a pretty decent amount of the thing is dedicated to promoting the film.

The remainder of the featurettes are shorter pieces focusing on production topics: "Production Design With Lilly Kilvert", "Costume Design With Ngila Dickson", "Imperial Army Basic Training" and "From Soldier To Samurai: The Weapons". Rounding out the second disc are 2 deleted scenes, the film's theatrical trailer and a nearly 7-minute look at the film's Japanese premieres.

Final Thoughts: "The Last Samurai" was a terrific action/drama that, while a tad slow in the middle, was still very compelling more often than not. While I'm unsure if Tom Cruise was the best choice for the lead, he certainly gives it a fine try here, and he's surrounded by a terrific supporting cast. Warner Brothers has provided a very good DVD; while some of the supplements are a little too promotional, the DVD offers solid audio/video quality. Recommended.

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