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The Last Samurai (2003) – DVD Review

The Last Samurai DVD cover art


Written by: John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz, & Edward Zwick, based on a story by Logan
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall, Koyuki


  • Running audio commentary from writer/director Zwick
  • Deleted scenes with optional commentary
  • History Channel docu: “History vs. Hollywood”
  • Featurette: “Tom Cruise: A Warrior’s Journal”
  • Director’s video journal
  • Conversation with Cruise and Zwick
  • Featurettes: production design, costume design, military training, weapons
  • Footage from the Tokyo and Kyoto red carpet premieres
  • Trailers

Released by: Warner Brothers
Region: 1
Rating: R
Anamorphic: Yes

My Advice: For those who dig samurai movies or films set in Japan, rent it.

[ad#longpost]Capt. Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a Civil War vet, nay, hero, who is having a bit of a rough go of it. When it comes to kicking ass on the battlefield, Algren is a formidable opponent. However, things that he was commanded to do that have nothing to do with the battlefield still haunt him and drive him into a bottle. Who should show up, then, but his old buddy Zebulon (Billy Connolly). There’s a proposition being made: the Japanese want someone to come and teach them how to build a modern army. They need this with a quickness, too, since they’re getting smacked around by the renegade samurai, who for centuries were the protectors of their nation. However, Algren isn’t quite sure which side he’s fighting for…

A lot of people had problems with this film–that it was Shogun Redux, that it was Dances With Wolves With Blades. None of this bothered me. What bothered me most was Zwick’s penchant for filling his film with panoramic shots of the Japanese countryside. We realize it’s a beautiful place, Ed, but we’re not here to watch a travel docu. The film was too long by a half-hour, and trimming some of the needless shots would have gone a long way towards helping that.

The other reason it felt long is, well, look at the movie poster. We see Cruise in samurai armor screaming with a sword over his head: thus, since we know he’s going to adopt the ways of bushido (as if that could be any more telegraphed, poster or no), we’re literally waiting over an hour and a half to get to a point in the film that we have no doubt is coming. Thus it’s easy to get bored, no matter how pretty the scenery is to look at. It’s also a shame that they had to stick a romance in here somewhere–forget that the true story is of Manly Men and Their Swords, there has to be a love interest. And boy, does that feel awkward.

Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai
Ken Watanabe will cut you. He will do it honorably, though.

While the costumes and battle staging are impressive, they don’t save the film from true blandness. What does are Cruise and Watanabe. Cruise is an underrated actor, I think, and here he plays the role to the hilt…ah, no pun intended. But the standout is Watanabe, who it’s easy to believe could either have tea with you or kill you stone dead, depending on what was demanded. Even in the moments of high melodrama, the two men surrender to the roles completely, so it’s easy to go along with them. It’s just a shame you couldn’t get a tighter film for them to act in.

The DVD release is fairly stacked. While a commentary from Cruise and Watanabe would have been fascinating, we do get director Zwick, who is informative enough. He relates the difficulties of shooting particular scenes (horses running right up on actors? forget it) and the details about the final battle sequence are quite enlightening. I can’t imagine the patience and fortitude with which it would take to spends days upon days trying to match lighting, costumes and continuity so the thing looks instantaneous. Remind me later in life to direct only small, character-driven non-period films, would you?

The rest of the set is equal parts hype and substance. The substance comes with the brief rundown of the bushido code, and with Golden Chazzie winner Ngila Dickson discussing the creation of the costumes and their need to nail down the historical accuracy. The other production featurettes are pretty sweet too; weapon freaks will like to check out how they went about creating all of the various period military ordinance. Also nice is the bit from the History Channel, where they take you through what’s Hollywood and what’s not. Particularly telling was the comment that in the grand scheme of things, the samurai revered in this film were in effect the bad guys.

History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai

Everything else is pretty much hype: does Cruise really need his own featurette? More impressive would have been one about Watanabe, frankly. Interviews with him and Zwick consist of a lot of smoke-blowing and talking about how hard the film was to shoot (yeah, we got that). And the footage from the premieres are fairly superfluous as well.

The film is decent, but it’s not great. It really needed an editor and a good script doctor to come in and make the thing move like it was at least somewhat alive. It’s worth a rental if you’re into this sort of thing. Big fans of the blade or of the Japanese countryside will want to own.

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