Jan. 12, 2004 – It isn't Japanese, and it isn't Kurosawa, but "The Last Samurai" appears to have enough of the American right stuff to stand on its own.
It's definitely the American touch that director Edward Zwick employs in casting Tom Cruise as Capt. Nathan Algren, a misbegotten, disillusioned, alcoholic Civil War veteran, a survivor of Custer's cavalry sent to, of all places, Japan, where he is supposed to teach the Japanese to fight with guns instead of swords.
Algren leads the ragtag, heavily armed new Japanese army against a group of Samurai led by General Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) who refuse to lay down their arms. And, as luck and storyline will have it, Algren is captured by the enemy, the Samurai. So, the yarn isn't all that original — shades of "Dancing with Wolves" — but the movie grows on you, according to many reviews.
Although Cruise soon starts playing Cruise, they say, he eases into his role gracefully after his capture by Katsumoto. He is held prisoner, not killed, because of his victory over the group's top swordsman. The Samurai want to know more about him.
And as they learn about him, Algren learns their ways and undergoes a metamorphosis, changing loyalties and becoming a Samurai swordsman. Actually, he had no loyalty to the Winchester rifle company, which had hired him, or the cause; he was merely a mercenary doing a job — reluctantly, at that.
A reviewer for the "Rotten Apples" Web site says Cruise is still playing Cruise, but "even if you think Cruise has never had a moment of doubt in his life, he makes Algren's self-loathing palpable, and the character's regeneration has a hoarse, cautious purposefulness that's striking."
Held in the Samurai camp for more than a year, Algren gradually undergoes some dramatic personal changes. He befriends the wife of the man he has killed in battle, an unlikely liaison, and one that excludes romance, according to tradition. Algren's personal conflict mirrors the conflict going on in the country — tradition vs. new commerce and the new political atmosphere, according to one reviewer.
As in other Zwick films — "Glory," "Legends of the Fall," "Courage under Fire" — he concentrates more on personal loyalties than political ideology. Michael Wilmington, writing in the Chicago Tribune, calls the film an "homage to Kurosawa," writing: "It's done with such visual beauty and thrilling action that, by the film's climactic battle — the Samurais' last stand against the Imperial Army — we're swept into its grand myth-making." Another reviewer says that with the "purity of Cruise's anguish, Watanabe's nobility carries the drama."
For anyone familiar with Kurosawa's 1954 classic, "Seven Samurai," those are pretty strong words. The late director not only lent his genius to Japanese film making but changed the way action films are made. His black and white classic, more than three hours long, is still the benchmark. Who could ever forget the scene when the unruly Samurai Toshiro Mifune grabs a fish out of a stream and, after dangling it above him as the other soldiers impatiently wait, swallows it whole?
The fact that no reviewers wrote of having left "The Last Samurai" to go rent a copy of the "Seven Samurai" to watch at home says a lot for the movie.
"The Last Samurai" was directed by Zwick, and written by Zwick, John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz. It runs 2:24 and is rated R for violence and battle scenes.
It starts Thursday at Market Square East on St. Thomas.
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