It’s easy to dismiss The Last Samurai at first glance as just another entry in the evergreen “soldier betrays his masters and goes native” subgenre. The formula has proven to be a robust one, but the movies it’s yielded have varied widely in quality – from the acclaimed Dances With Wolves to the beautiful but paper-thin Avatar. The Last Samurai proves to be one of the category’s best entries, setting itself apart through surefooted execution and a deeply human story.
Our hero is Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a veteran of both the Civil War and the American Indian Wars. His military days long behind him, he’s now reduced to hocking rifles as the star of a trashy Wild West show. After being fired from his post for one drunken performance too many, an old war buddy (Billy Connolly) gives him a new job opportunity: helping to train the Japanese army to defeat a samurai rebellion led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). A former advisor to Japan’s emperor, Katsumoto is now the leader of an uprising against a rapidly modernizing Japan. During the ill-fated first battle between the American-trained Japanese soldiers and the samurai, a badly-wounded Algren is taken prisoner by Katsumoto, who decides to spare him in order to learn more about his enemy. Deprived of alcohol but given (most of) the privileges of any other villager, Algren slowly comes to respect, and then embrace, the samurai way of life.
Given the filmmaking talent on display, the viewer will likely have a similar revelation. The Last Samurai is beautifully photographed, starkly contrasting the early scenes of bustling, industrial San Francisco and Tokyo with the idyllic calm of the Samurai’s pastoral village. The latter’s production design is perhaps the real star of the movie, rendering the town’s houses, clothing, and of course, swords in arresting detail.
Cruise turns in one of his better performances in the lead, unafraid to make Algren a dark, borderline-unlikable character in the movie’s early scenes. Unlike other protagonists in movies with this narrative, Algren doesn’t begin his arc as a blindly loyal follower of his people. Quite the opposite: Algren is disgusted by the deeds perpetuated by himself and his nation, plagued by PTSD and turning to alcohol to self-medicate. It’s one of the movie’s most skillful touches: having Algren begin as a thoroughly broken man makes the meaning he later finds within the samurai all the more affecting, and Cruise does an excellent job making the transformation feel organic and unforced.
But the movie’s best acting comes from Ken Watanabe, who exudes charisma as Katsumoto. Blessed with the lion’s share of the screenplay’s best dialogue, he conveys wisdom, compassion, and no small amount of humor with an understated – but deeply thoughtful – touch. It’s no surprise that the scenes between Katsumoto and Algren are some of the movie’s best, initially highlighting their clashing views on war and honor but seamlessly transitioning to respectful conversations between friends.
Though its first act has a burst or two of violence, the movie’s second half gradually becomes more and more punctuated with action sequences as the antagonists make their move. These scenes, which often pit the old-world weaponry of the samurai against relatively modern firearms, are most certainly stylized, but never so much so that they detract from the movie’s (mostly) realistic aesthetic. The movie saves its grandest spectacle for the climax, a large-scale battle sequence that manages to feel epic without overstaying its welcome. Like much of the rest of the movie, it avoids cliché, humanizing the soldiers on both sides and ending on an unexpectedly poignant note. By its final scene, The Last Samurai has successfully realized its lofty goals: creating an elegant, moving portrait of both one man and an entire culture.