The Last Samurai (2003)

Rating: C-

Dir: Edward Zwick
Star: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall

This bloated and overlong epic could be simulated by getting any convenient Noble Savage to beat you over the head for 144 minutes while demanding Academy Awards. Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a washed-up Civil War hero who heads out to Japan to train the Emperor’s troops, gets captured by the rebels and – to absolutely no-one’s surprise – slowly finds them to be more noble than his employers. Indeed, there’s very little that isn’t entirely predictable, from Algren’s falling for a native woman, to the eventual “heroic bloodshed” at the conclusion. Worse still, none of it is convincing. We’re not shown why we’d root for one side or against the other; there are mumblings about “spirituality”, but this never comes across, leaving the samurai as little more than peasants – albeit peasants with really neat weapons.

As has been frequently pointed out elsewhere, this bears more than slight similarities to another Oscar-aimed historical piece starring Mr. Costner, but you should probably also chuck in Glory, from the same director, and Braveheart, though this can only dream of having as much passion. The battle scenes, however, come close to salvaging the entire endeavour, with a grubby intensity that provokes exactly the right mix of awed wonder and horror. Unfortunately, I was left stoically neutral; indeed, probably leaning towards the modernist forces led by Mr. Omura (Harada – and, yes, he is the director of Gunhed!). Given this is entirely the opposite of the film’s painfully obvious intentions, you’ll appreciate why I was so underwhelmed.