There was really nothing wrong with The Last Samurai, it just didn't do much for me. For everything it had going for it, it lacked... something.
Eager to open trade with Japan, the U.S. agrees to send Captain Algren to help train the Japanese soldiers so that they may defeat the rebel Samurais. Algren is a drunk, but he knows his stuff. During an initial skirmish, he is captured by the Samurai, but instead of being killed, they take him captive. During his months of captivity, Algren comes to appreciate their lifestyle and what they believe in. Led by Katsumoto, the Samurai only want what is best for Japan. When the time comes for the Samurai to once again fight the soldiers, Algren now sides with the Samurai.
95% of the time when I'm watching a movie, I find myself writing the review in my head. It's easier for crappy films, because as everyone knows, it's easier to trash something than to praise it. Still, I almost always have something going through my mind about what I'm watching. However, there is that other 5%, and The Last Samurai fell into that category. I was watching and paying attention, but nothing was coming to mind. I mean, it all looked good, sounded good, was well acted, but I didn't have any feeling for the film. It might be because I could never figure out the point of the plot. I understood the idea of a man changing because he is affected by the people that surround him, what I didn't get is why there was a battle in the first place. What did the Samurai do that was so bad that it took a few thousand soldiers to kill 500 Samurai?
There were flashes of a battle Algren had been in during his military time in the U.S. where his group apparently murdered a lot of women and children, and that obviously put him over the edge. So I can see where he would side with the Samurai, feeling that they were like the people he killed, and he wanted to get over his grief. What I didn't figure out is why the Japanese disliked them so much. Maybe it was explained early on in the film and I missed it, but it seemed like a lot of overkill. Was it simply because they wanted all the military expertise the U.S. had and needed someone to focus on?
Emotion played a large part in this film. I felt the emotion between Algren and Katsumoto, and their relationship was really the highlight of the film for me. You could see an honest bond slowly grow between the two of them, even if I didn't fully understand why. You could see how the kids looked up to Algren, although once again, considering he killed their father, you wonder why. Adults might understand the idea of dying with honor, but do children feel the same way? I wish they hadn't considered starting a love story between Algren and the widow of the man he killed, because that was a bit much.
Visually the movie was pretty good, although some of the computer generated images looked bad on top of great scenery. Specifically there was one massive battle shot that was so obviously computer generated it makes you wonder why they put it in there. And towards the end where machine guns were being used, the little puffs of smoke that would appear on the ground looked really cheesy too. But as I said, the scenery and sets were really beautiful. The acting was also pretty good, with the actor who played Katsumoto, Ken Watanabe being the best of the bunch. Instead of pushing Tom Cruise for an Academy Award nomination, they should focus on Watanabe instead. He brought raw power and emotion to the role and I tended to focus more on him than on Cruise when the two shared the screen.
One of the problems in listening to what other people think about a film before seeing it is that you tend to take what they say to heart. So hearing that critics loved this film, and listening to advance Oscar buzz made me believe the film was going to blow me away. It was good, but not great. There have been battle epics that have been better, and films that had a better visual style and direction. Had Tom Cruise not been the headliner, I don't know if the film would have gotten as much buzz.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So overall, The Last Samurai wasn't a bad movie, but I didn't find it to be as fantastic as others have. See it for the secondary performance of Ken Watanabe, and the relationship between his character and Tom Cruise's character, along with the beautiful scenery.
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