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The Last Samurai (15)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by Edward Zwick; Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey; Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise; Edward Zwick: Director's Video Journal; From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons; Imperial Army Basic Training; Silk and Armor: Costume Design; A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert; Creating Digital Reality; Additional scenes.

TWO classic genres collide in spectacular fashion in The Last Samurai, Edward Zwick’s handsome homage to the likes of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and westerns such as Dances With Wolves.

Tom Cruise stars as Captain Nathan Algren, a disillusioned Civil War hero, whose faith in himself and the army he used to serve, has deserted him, amid a change in military focus and attitude.

Haunted by the ghosts of past deeds and atrocities, he reluctantly agrees to travel to Japan, to help bring about an end to the Samurai, who are threatening to undermine the country’s ‘Westernisation’, only to find himself captured, taken prisoner and unexpectedly impressed and influenced by his enemy’s ancient culture.

The friendship he subsequently forms with Ken Watanabe’s legendary Samurai leader, Katsumoto, quickly places him at odds with his own culture, and eventually compels him to make a stand for the honourable traditions of a rapidly disappearing way of life.

Zwick’s movie is very much a labour of love and its many influences serve to ensure that the story retains an old-fashioned feel throughout. And while there are crowd-pleasing moments, courtesy of the odd twirl of a Samurai-sword, or the sight of a heavily-scarred Cruise bathing, Zwick remains careful not to dishonour or neglect his inspirations.

The film is rich in detail and visually stunning, yet as big as some of the set pieces become, it remains, at its heart, a human story, driven by two very distinct characters.

Cruise, who continues to take risks as an actor, once again impresses as the battle-scarred soldier, who embraces the opportunity to regain his honour, and atone for past sins, in suitably heartfelt fashion, while his relationship with Katsumoto is pitched in such a way that it never threatens to hog the limelight, allowing Watanabe the time and space to deliver an equally poignant turn as the proud leader who is forced to watch, helplessly, as the world he knows and loves disintegrates around him.

It is a relationship made all the more affecting by the scale of the battles, which never lose sight of the human cost involved, despite working on the grandest visual scale.

Zwick, too, deserves credit for mixing things up so well, for this is a two and a half hour movie which seldom feels its length, and which acts as a pertinent reminder of traditional values over conventional movie-making.

This is the type of movie which harks back to the days of both The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, as well as more revisionist fare such as Costner’s Dances With Wolves, while also ensuring that the Samurai sword remains the weapon of choice in terms of modern cinema culture (a la Kill Bill, etc).

Many of its themes remain timeless, too, with the US treatment of the Samurai serving as a neat metaphor for its treatment of the native American Indians, as well as being applicable to current world events, at a time when many people continue to disagree with its foreign policy.

Zwick is no stranger to epic movie-making, of course, having helmed the Oscar-winning Glory, but his film remains a lovingly crafted, fitting tribute to those it seeks to honour, as well as a thoughtful, thrilling and deeply moving piece of cinema.

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