Tom Cruise lends his star power to this epic drama about a Civil War veteran who allies himself with samurai warriors in 1870s Japan.
Editor's Note: Throughout March and April, we’re celebrating Great Westerns of the 21st Century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab Monday through Friday to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our upcoming May/June 2020 print edition, which prominently features the legendary star who looms large in two of this century’s very best westerns.
Take this as fair warning: If you count yourself among those who are predisposed to despise Tom Cruise — and you know who you are, so don't bother playing innocent — The Last Samurai may seem like cruel and unusual punishment. The 2003 movie, an exceptionally well-crafted, unusually intelligent and stirringly exciting period drama, is that most oxymoronic of rarities, a truly intimate epic. Which means that, even when the widescreen frame is filled to bursting with exquisite landscapes, ferocious battles and hundreds of armored extras, the chief focus remains the protagonist played by the guy whose name is above the title.
The good news — that is, good for anyone unburdened by anti-Cruise bias — is that this guy is everything he needs to be for the protagonist to affect us, and for the movie to overwhelm us. Cruise is at the top of his form here, earning and sustaining rooting interest with a forceful, multifaceted performance fueled by high-octane star power. Better still, Cruise is shrewdly generous in sharing the spotlight, once again demonstrating his instinctive awareness that, when it comes to acting, the real pros know what scenes are better served by reacting or interacting.
Cruise is perfectly cast as Nathan Algren, decorated Civil War veteran and guilt-racked Indian fighter, a role that fits him like a hand-tooled glove. He artfully balances swagger and self-disgust as Algren, rarely sober and never civil, sabotages his career as celebrity spokesman for Winchester rifles, then lands a new gig as military adviser for the callow young emperor of Japan. Along with a former commanding officer (Tony Goldwyn) he would gladly use for target practice, Algren is charged with training a modern army to suppress an 1870s rebellion by samurai warriors who resent the emperor’s rash embrace of Western ways.
Unfortunately, the fresh-faced conscripts are fatally outmatched in their first clash with the samurai. In the wake of the bloody battle, Algren is taken prisoner by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the living legend leading the samurai and, perhaps more important, the brother-in-law of a warrior Algren kills in combat.
Don't misunderstand: Katsumoto doesn’t capture our hero simply because he wants to avenge his newly widowed sister (Koyuki). Rather, Katsumoto somehow discerns in Algren something of a soul mate: Another proud warrior who remains inextricably bound to a personal code of honor.
It takes Algren quite a while during a long winter of captivity (and samurai training) before he begins to see in himself any of the good stuff Katsumoto has glimpsed. Truth to tell, Algren is too used to hating himself — he’s haunted by his role in atrocities led by his hated former commander. But after he immerses himself in Japanese language and samurai culture — and, not incidentally, spends quality time with the beautiful widow and hero-worshipping sons of the warrior he killed — he takes up the sword to help defend Eastern traditions from control and corruption by Western interests.
As Katsumoto, Watanabe isn't merely a formidable foil for the star, he is every bit a leading player in his own right, eloquently conveying the melancholy wisdom and lethal professionalism of a warrior who reluctantly realizes he is on the wrong side of history. To be sure, we see him — and all other aspects of samurai culture — mostly through Algren's respectful eyes. Even so, we can't help admiring the spectacular view.
Director Edward Zwick (Glory) handles one-on-one swordfights, ninja guerrilla assaults and full-scale battlefield scenes with kinetic flair and meticulous attention to detail, suggesting he spent long hours studying the masterworks of Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, especially). But The Last Samurai, like all world-class intimate epics, is equally arresting when the on-screen clashes are verbal rather than physical, when heart and soul is emphasized over sound and fury.
The Last Samurai is available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, You Tube, iTunes and other platforms.