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On Dec. 1, 2003, Warner Bros. premiered The Last Samurai in Los Angeles. The drama went on to be nominated for four Oscars at the 76th Academy Awards, including in the supporting actor category for Ken Watanabe. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Hollywood — and America’s — fascination with all things Asian continues in Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, a movie that successfully merges a Western with a samurai movie. Zwick triumphantly pulls off what sounds like the height of arrogance: a Yank directing a samurai movie and, worse, Tom Cruise playing the title role. Hewing close to historical accuracy, though, the film does a reasonable job of situating Cruise, playing an Indian fighter and Civil War veteran, in Japan during the 1876-77 Samurai Revolt to catch the final moments of samurai culture and its spirit of Bushido.
Relying on a solidly grounded screenplay with principled though doomed heroes, rapacious villains, intriguing supporting characters and a climactic battle in which bows and arrows and swords go up against howitzers and repeating rifles, “Samurai” is a hugely satisfying entertainment that will attract a broad spectrum of audiences around the world. Zwick fully exploits the star power at his disposal, pairing off Cruise and Japanese star Ken Watanabe as two larger-than-life warriors, initially adversaries but eventually allies and even friends.
The script by Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and John Logan tackles an unusual four-act structure, which suits the epic nature of the story. We first encounter Cruise’s Capt. Nathan Algren as a somewhat cliched figure — a whiskey-soaked, self-pitying ex-soldier reduced to performing a one-man Wild West show in San Francisco to sell Winchester rifles. Flashbacks explain that Nathan lost his soul during a massacre of an Indian village that included women and children and was carried out under the command of Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn).
Then who should rescue Nathan from his self-destructive stupor but former comrades Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly) and Col. Bagley himself? The two woo him to accept a commission to train the conscript army of a Japanese emperor eager to embrace the modern world.
Arriving in Japan refreshed by sea breezes yet with no loss of cynicism or self-contempt, Nathan is up against a timetable that won’t allow him to train the army in modern weaponry properly before challenging a renegade band of samurai lead by Katsumoto (Watanabe). A battle in a foggy forest results in the rout of the army and capture of Nathan by Katsumoto, who spares the foreign soldier despite the fact Nathan slew his brother-in-law in combat.
The second section isolates Nathan in a rural village over fall and winter. In often silent sequences, he watches and learns samurai culture, ethos and fighting techniques. Katsumoto unaccountably speaks English, so the two engage in conversations that explore their areas of differences and agreement. Rather startlingly, Katsumoto lodges Nathan with his sister, Taka (Koyuki), the widow of the samurai Nathan killed. By winter’s end and only after repeated beatings in fencing with his bitter antagonist, Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada), Nathan emerges as a samurai who has ingratiated himself to his host family by saving them from a ninja attack.
In the third section, Nathan accompanies Katsumoto to Tokyo for a political showdown with the emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) and, more pivotally, Omura (Masato Harada), the businessman behind the transformation of feudal Japan into a modern nation, mostly for his own financial benefit. Katsumoto is placed under arrest and offered the honorable choice of taking his own life. But Nathan and the other samurai spring Katsumoto, and they flee Tokyo.
The final section awesomely pits a large modern army against the samurai in battle, where Nathan and Katsumoto seek to neutralize the big guns and reduce things to hand-to-hand combat where the samurai might prevail. Zwick makes it amply clear that in this rousing battle sequence, we are witness to the passing of the samurai era.
Cruise and Watanabe underplay their roles, letting their characters’ deeds speak for them and permitting intimacies not usually associated with epic moviemaking. Cruise’s transformation into a samurai is convincing as the actor makes us understand that this the only way he can reclaim his soul. Watanabe’s confusion over the mores and manners of modern warfare is equaled by his determination to remain loyal to the old ways, even if it means his death.
Timothy Spall enlivens all his scenes as an English photographer enthralled with Japanese culture. Model-actress Koyuki lends her ethereal beauty and gentle manner to the woman who captures Nathan’s heart. Goldwyn and Harada, though, are fairly conventional villains.
Shot mostly in New Zealand, the movie makes superb use of its period costumes, sets and weaponry. Occasionally, a CG image or matte painting calls attention to itself, but overall the historical depiction represents Hollywood technical crafts at their best. The kendo drills and the fights maintain a grace and expressiveness equal to a Japanese samurai movie.
John Toll’s cinematography adds luster to the film’s epic sweep. But Hans Zimmer’s score works a little too hard. He might have mixed Eastern and Western musical themes to greater advantage, but instead Zimmer sticks mostly to Western motifs and instruments. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on Dec. 1, 2003
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