In The Last Samurai, Tom cruise shows that a compelling story, good acting, and well paced action is better than over the top explosions and high flying wire kung-fu, any day. In the film Cruise plays Nathan Algren, an alcoholic, civil war hero, whose life has fallen by the way side since the war came to a close. He now sells guns at street fairs to support his out of control drinking. The most compelling element to the story, which is immediately apparent, is how dedicated Cruise is to the role.
Algren is hired by the Japanese army to defend the transportation of goods from the samurai, a group of ancient warriors whose tradition ways go against the grain of the "New Japan" being formed.
He both looks and feels like a man defeated. Waiting for him to turn around is what keeps the audience in the film through some of the slow scenes.
This is not to say the film is not without action. In fact the second and third acts move at an almost breakneck pace, with Cruise showing off his martial arts training in a big way. All the battles feel natural, never forced, and never over the top.
Director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Siege) has put together a film that combines stories of war, love, redemption and sacrifice seamlessly. The action is spectacular and the closing battle sequence is one of the best this reporter has seen to date.
The film allows the audience to take the journey of its protagonist along with him. Feeling the hopes and dreams, as strongly as the pitfalls and tragedies. It evokes strong emotion without ever apologizing and creates a series of characters around Cruise whom you not only enjoy, and understand, but you sympathize with.
Actor Ken Watnabe plays Katsumoto, the leader of the samurai whose fearsomeness is matched only by his tenderness. This brilliant actor brings such a genuine nature to his role that you can't help but lean forward in your chair when he speaks. And this is true for all the characters. They are all fully developed and can make you laugh out loud in one moment, and tear up the next.
After a string of recent let downs in the action, epic department, The Last Samurai shines threw with no punches pulled and no over burdening sentimentality. It is one of the best films of the year, if not one of the best war films of recent times. For many this comment may seem too strong, but once this film is experienced, it is not easily forgotten.
The Last Samurai is the must see film of the year, and is a shoe-in for an Oscar node.
The film opens this Friday.
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