"Saki! Saki!" screams Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) in his deliriums, craving the alcohol that captors deny him. Cruise, perfectly cast in this story of two contrasting worlds, gives one of his best performances in Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai, the epic story of a group of warriors trying to save their way of life in the face of a changing empire.
In Japan, 1870, Civil War veteran Nathan Algren is training the empire's first army in the ways of modern warfare. The army is to defeat the band of ancient imperial Samurai warriors, led by the Emperor's former teacher Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). The Samurai are opposed to the Emperor's plans for Westernization and are fighting to preserve Japan's ancient traditions. Algren, however, is taken prisoner during the first battle. After spending a winter in captivity with the "barbarians," he unexpectedly befriends Katsumoto and finds himself drawn to the Samurai way of life. As the inevitable battle draws near, Algren is caught between two eras, forced either to conform to his old way of life or fight to defend the way of life he has come to accept and love.
Zwick's film is exceptional in its portrayal of the never-ending battle between change and the established traditions of society. The plot is captivating and easy to follow, providing over two hours of intense drama and edge-of-your-seat battle scenes.
Not only is The Last Samurai powerful in its plot, but the movie's cinematography is flawless as well. Filmed partly in New Zealand, a large portion of the movie is set in a picturesque village high in the mountains. The village is constantly shrouded in a fine mist, giving the mountain haven a surreal, divine appearance. The filming of the battle scenes is remarkable in depicting the brutal reality of war. Zwick gives the audience a bird's-eye-view of the battlefield, contrasting the massive legions of the Emperor's army with the mere five hundred Samurai warriors.
Cruise's portrayal of a 19th century war veteran and fearless battle leader is superb. He is able to transform Algren from a drunken soldier wallowing in self-pity to an honorable and courageous warrior, fighting for his beliefs. Cruise holds nothing back and truly shines as he charges on his battle steed into the heart of the Emperor's army, clad in the ancient armor of the Samurai warrior. As Katsumoto, Watanabe defines the Samurai culture: He is a disciplined and fearless warrior who is willing to take his own life if he fails his cause. Watanabe seems to be born into his role; like his character he is an imposing figure who leaves an impact on all who come into his presence.
The Last Samurai follows Gladiator as one of the film industry's greatest epics. Script, acting, and cinematography intertwine to create a cultural and dramatic masterpiece that should be on everyone's must-see list.
The Last Samurai is rated R for strong violence and battle sequences.
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