Like Dances with Wolves, another film about a disaffected 19th-century American soldier going native, Edward Zwick’s tame The Last Samurai romanticizes an ancient culture as the pure and honorable adversary of the deviously amoral and bloodthirsty modern world epitomized by the United States and its allies. The film’s dichotomous narrative is designed to engender audience sympathy for the fierce, noble samurai who, in their civil struggle against the emperor’s nefarious Imperial court, represent the last vestiges of a supposedly more ethical era. The Americans are murderous boors, and the emperor’s right-hand man Omura (Masato Harada) is a soulless creep more interested in howitzer machine guns than cultural history. All the while, the film conveniently (and, one might say, deceptively) sidesteps commenting on the dubious militaristic legacy of the samurai on Japan’s modern history.
More problematic than the film’s political shortsightedness is its obviousness and simplistic didacticism. A damp “epic” adventure about the value of multiculturalism, the film traces the path of washed-up drunken soldier Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) to Japan to train the emperor’s peasant army for battle against the rebellious samurais led by the imposing Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). In battle, Algren is captured and brought back to the samurai enclave nestled deep within Japan’s lush green countryside of rolling hills and snow-capped mountains. There, he slowly learns to embrace the samurai way of life (discipline, perseverance, spirituality) and, in the process, purge himself of the painful memory of an Indian massacre in which his repugnant commanding officer Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) forced him to participate. Algren slowly falls in love with Katsumoto’s demure sister (Koyuji)—wife of a man Algren killed in battle—and, after a few nights of detox and a few strolls around the lovely village, discards his Western mentality for a life of Zen bliss.
Cruise convincingly brings Algren’s metaphysical resurrection to life, smoothly masking the character’s disarming fragility with defiant, devil-may-care courage. Still, the actor’s palpable vanity—playfully mocked by one samurai’s comment that Cruise is “still so ugly!”—periodically inhibits his performance. Cruise’s likeably confrontational scenes with Watanabe soon give way to mushy man-love declarations of solidarity, and thus there’s little surprise when Algren decides to take up arms with the samurais against his former comrades. There’s a crisp, sinewy rhythm to Zwick’s direction, and cinematographer-par-excellence John Toll ably captures the overpowering majesty of both the Japanese countryside and the regal samurai, such as when the fierce warriors, encased in spiked armor and ornate horned helmets, burst forth from the forest mist like rampaging specters on horseback. A spectacular battle between Katsumoto’s tribe and a band of fearsome swordsmen gives the film a momentary jolt of combative excitement, but, by and large, The Last Samurai is content to be a squishy, serious-minded lesson about embracing one’s heritage and cherishing the virtues of valor and respect. It could have used more edge.
Save for the occasional edge enhancement around distant objects, this is an absolutely outstanding video transfer. The opening shot alone illustrates the excellent shadow delineation at work here, not to mention the cleanliness and depth of blacks and blues. Every skin tone, every color hue is positively seductive, and you won't notice any noise during fade-outs or dirt throughout the duration of the film. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix is also a winner and could pass for a DTS track. Indeed, there isn't a beat here that doesn't resonate across the entire soundstage, from the drums and horns on the soundtrack to the swishing swords, gunfire and galloping horses.
If you're seriously into film then you know that Edward Zwick is a terrible director, but he sounds like a swell guy. On his commentary (the only feature available on disc one), he says he recorded the track only a few days after the premiere of the film. This obviously doesn't allow the director to address criticism of the film he may have read, but that doesn't seem to matter here. For a Hollywood director, an emotional Zwick is unusually but refreshingly connected to his images and he's very critical of the film in spots. He's also very sensitive to the story and its implications, and he talks at length about his concerns about having his main character appropriate another culture. Disc two begins with "Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey," an ego piece that allows the actor to explain the story in Cliffs Notes terms and features one of the film's Asian producers attempting to validate the story's cultural appropriation for those who may have been offended by it. The 26-minute "Edward Zwick: Director's Video Journal" continues where the director's commentary left off; Zwick, again, reveals himself to be a man who is sensitively, even painfully connected to his images, and this feature allows him to transcend the film. Cruise and his director get chummy on the masturbatory "Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise" and the History Channel further validates the film on the unusually flashy "History vs. Hollywood." Next, four short featurettes go dutifully behind-the-scenes: "A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert," "Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson," "Imperial Army Basic Training," and "From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons." Rounding out the disc are two deleted scenes ("Beheading" and "Algren and Katsumoto," with a special effects elaboration of the former), footage from the film's Japanese premieres, and the film's theatrical trailer.
The audio and video transfer is so good, you may forget just how offensive it is that Cruise and Zwick are trying to teach the Japanese how to be Japanese again.