Last Samurai, The

Rated: R
Stars:  Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada
Director:  Ed Zwick
Screenwriters:   Marshall Herskovitz, John Logan, Edward Zwick

This is an elegantly told and powerful epic of clashing ideologies that witnesses the demise of samurai culture and its tradition of Bushido during Japan’s bloody 1876-77 Samurai Revolt.

Tom Cruise plays disillusioned Civil War hero Nathan Algren who, after the war, is hired by the American government to help organize and train an army for the Japanese emperor, who’s trying to move his country into the modern world while facing a Samurai rebellion. The country’s leadership has become obsessed with all things Western and desires to shake off its feudal ways. The West, meanwhile, sees money to be made in the form of lucrative trade contracts and one American company dealing in weapons is about the make a bundle.

Algren takes his task seriously, even when he’s ordered to assault the Samurai rebels before his troops are ready. Consequently, Algren’s brigade is overtaken and Algren himself is captured by the formidable and charismatic leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) who escapes to his son’s village high in the mountains. While recovering from his wounds, Algren enjoys the hospitality of his captors, including that of Taka (Koyuki), the widow of the samurai Algren killed. At the village, Algren learns the way of the warriors and later comes to appreciate their complex social systems based on honor and respect. Finally, there comes a time in which he must choose upon which side to fight.

The role of samurai leader Katsumoto is a difficult one; he has pledged loyalty to the emperor but at the same time, he must fight the emperor’s men to save the tradition of his country. Actors Watanabe and Cruise are both convincing in their portrayals and the screenwriters and director have taken the time needed to develop their characters appropriately.

The action is stupendous and fights are well choreographed. In a final rousing battle sequence, we see a large modern army with rifles and gattling guns pitted against the samurai, who favor bows and arrows and swords in hand-to-hand combat.

Lotta says:  Look for an engaging Timothy Spall as Simon Graham, an English photographer taken with Japanese culture; Tony Goldwyn plays mean Colonel Bagley, Algren’s nemesis while Billy Connolly plays a comrade. Masato Harada ably plays the despicable Omura, the emperor’s representative. The Last Samurai was shot mostly in New Zealand and reveals glorious period costumes, sets and weaponry.

Reviewed: 12/7/03