The opening scene of Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai” shows us a very pathetic-looking character. He’s drunk, of course, and is degraded to the point of playing a legendary war hero in a live advertising stunt to sell guns for his ungrateful boss before a mass of American consumers. This man is Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise). And although he used to be a captain in the Civil War, he now takes orders from cue-cards instead of generals.
It may be 1876, but what follows is a testament that clichés are older than period films. If you’ve seen enough FBI movies, you know someone will walk in and convince him to take up some important job to redeem himself of his past failures. Sure enough, Sgt. Grant (Billy Connolly) walks in and requests Algren’s presence in Japan, where the country’s official army is fighting it's own civil war against the samurai rebels. Japan is prepared to sign a contract that will supply them with arms intended to easily combat the samurais who only fight with swords and arrows. Algren is asked to train the Emperor’s (Shichinosuke Nakamura) men with the new American-made weapons.
Upon arrival in Japan, Algren meets Ohmura (Masato Harada), the Emperor’s highest ranking officer and a loyal subject to the Emperor. Ohmura is anxious to strengthen Japan’s army with the latest western technology, a cache of weapons which include cannons and rapid-firing machine guns. Another character is the familiar Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn), whom Algren served with in the Civil War. Algren has never liked Bagly and assures him, "I would kill anybody for $500 (his salary in Japan), but I would kill you for free."
The hostility between the two American officers goes back to the Civil War, a period Algren would rather forget. In one of the bloodiest battles he took part in, his regiment was ordered to slaughter a neutral village of Native Americans, leaving no woman or child standing. These atrocities are what brought Algren to the bottle and his unglamorous advertising job, and perhaps that is why he was extremely eager to leave his country and assist the Japanese.
Unaccustomed to the new guns, Algren’s trainees show little progress and are not ready to intercept Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) and his ruthless samurai rebels who are attacking the government's trains. At the firing range, none of the soldiers can hit the bull's eye; few can even hit the target. The first battle ends in disaster, as Zwick’s ill-prepared soldiers are forced to retreat and Algren himself is captured by the samurais once Katsumoto decides to spare his life.
The harsh winter months keep Algren confined within the samurai compound borders where he is free to do whatever he wishes to pass the time. He is kept in the care of Katsumoto's sister, Taka (Koyuki), who for good reasons doesn't enjoy Algren’s company.
Living with Katsumoto’s people, Algren gets exposed to the Samurai lifestyle, As a spectator, Algren observes, “I have never seen such discipline.” With a new respect for the rebels, he trains with the best warriors and eventually becomes one himself after tireless practice and never-ending defeat in sparring matches. In one of the most exciting scenes of the film, the tribe gets ambushed by ninjas -- that’s right, ninjas -- and the samurais along with Algren defend the compound in a brutal battle that is only a small taste of what’s to come.
Alas, Algren is still the enemy to the samurai people. Despite his service (the meaning of the word Samurai) and loyalty to Katsumoto and his village, they must part as Algren is escorted back to the Emperor’s army. The question that must be answered is who’s side will Algren take in the upcoming war? He’s being paid $500 a month to train the Emperor’s army, but now his attitude on warfare has shifted from firepower and state-of-the-art fire guns, to the more simplistic weapon of war; the sword.
The latter battles between the samurai warriors and the Emperor’s army provide some truly breathtaking scenes thanks to the masterful choreography and the directing of Edward Zwick. There’s one brief shot that is so good and revolutionary beyond any battle scene that I forgive the mud-sliding ending that soon follows. Never have I seen so many characters in one frame engaged in battle. Perhaps this was the work of CGI, but I was convinced I was watching hundreds of actors swinging swords and charging their bayonets.
Tom Cruise was a good choice for the role of Algren. He still doesn't bring the booming presence to a war character that we get from Russell Crowe, who shined in "Gladiator" and this year's wonderful "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," but Algren requires more humility than Crowe's portrayals. He's sarcastically witty, and for the most part he rises above the most fearless officers, but in some circumstances he can look rather weak and feeble.
“The Last Samurai” is one of the many films this year that doesn’t know when to end. At nearly three hours, the film continues past its epic moment and ends after a sloppy and pointless scene of dialogue and character maturity. The conclusion is force-fed down our throats and diminishes the impact of the last battle. We would rather relish the message very similar to "Braveheart" in that strength doesn't always depend on numbers. Had it ended with the conclusion of the final battle, “The Last Samurai” would have been one of this year’s greatest films.
But I loved the battle scenes too much for me to care about the flawed ending. I actually clapped during a scene, and I rarely clap at the movies. There are slow spots, but the action-less scenes are often accompanied by entertaining humor and breathtaking scenery. "The Last Samurai" is a well-made action movie and its strong message makes it that much more appealing. Is it going to make an impact at the Academy Awards this year? That, I am not sure of, but there are ninjas in this movie. What more can we ask for?