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In the late 1870s, the beginnings of Japan's modernisation is symbolised by the eradication of the Samurai way of life, as the alcoholic, Civil War veteran turned Winchester guns spokesman, Captain Woodrow Algren (Tom Cruise), arrives in Japan to train the troops of the emperor, Meiji. This breaks with the long-held tradition of employed samurai warriors protecting territories, and the emperor's new army prepares to wipe out the remaining Samurai warriors. When Algren is injured in combat and captured by the Samurai, he learns about their warrior honour code from their leader, Katsumoto. Algren has to choose sides.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Packed with all the ingredients of a classic cinematic dish, The Last Samurai offers all the simple pleasures of entertaining cinema in the wrapping of earnest themes and weighty issues. I don't mean to sound dismissive; the film is superbly made, with its fabulous detail, its sincere intentions and its glorious look and sound. I do want to warn against taking it too seriously as a cultural expedition, though; if that's what you want, go seek a historic doco.

Here, the code of Samurai is glorified for its noble aspects, the white man is converted to the beauty of its culture after his moral decline in battle, and the darker forces of humanity are quashed, at least morally. All this happens in Hollywood, but the real world is far more problematic.

So back to the film: an adventure, a buddy movie and a war film rolled into one giant cross cultural odyssey, The Last Samurai is magnificent to look at, to listen to and to feed off emotionally. The screenplay offers ample opportunity for variety, from intimate, secret longing to extraordinary battle scenes and dramatic personal confrontations, and director Edward Zwick makes the most of them all.

Tom Cruise works his butt off to great effect as the fish out of American water in 1870s Japan, and Ken Watanabe (reminiscent of Chow Yun Fat) is excellent as the last Samurai, Katsumoto, combining pride, courage and sensitivity in one macho package. More ornate than the average old Samurai movie, and fed with the screen equivalent of Kobe beef for its story, The Last Samurai is a big-hearted drama made with great skill. The melancholy after effect adds to its appeal, for me at least.

In his commentary for the DVD, Edward Zwick immediately establishes good rapport, with his seemingly reserved but sincere and frankly revealing style. His comments, recorded just days after the film's first release, reflect on what he thinks he achieved and what he did not - especially in terms of that difficult line between respecting a different culture and appropriating it in a small way for the sake of "making a Hollywood movie".

He sets the film's backstory in context - and the filmmaking process also; it's a truly intelligent commentary that is endlessly informative and enlightening. I highly recommend listening to it as a propellant to our understanding of what is behind the film and its characters.

In a way, he sets the film into a more substantial context and gives it more meaning.

Then it's time to slip in Disc 2, for a diverse set of features, each dealing with a different aspect of the film's production, from the Samurai training and their weapons to the director's own video journal, a half hour piece that I find most interesting when he talks about the specifics of certain scenes.

In A Conversation with Zwick and Cruise, the mood is relaxed, the two men sitting on a balcony in a Japanese environment, recalling the genesis of the project and their first meeting. While much of it is filler material or mutual admiration club, there are a few moments of inisht within the 20 minute feature to give it value.

The 22 minute doco from the History Channel features Zwick talking eloquently about Japanese history, echoed by Cruise, as well as well researched background information about Japan as it turned from a feudal, underdeveloped nation to a military colossus.

For an energetic run through on the grunt work of production design, join Lilly Kilvert as she walks through the workers and the evolving sets. She sounds like an earthy, intelligent and focused professional who knows what she's doing. It's her third film with Zwick.

For a totally different, yet creatively conjoined insight, join New Zealander Ngila Dickson in Silk and Armor, the featurette exploring the amazing costumes. And learn how important they are.

It's good to see the basic army training work, too, and how seriously the young Japanese extras who were taken to New Zealand took their boot camp. The two deleted scenes, with commentary options, are made really compelling by the extra information included about the special effects used (eg, in the beheading).

Unheralded amongst the video features is a multi-page text feature with the guiding principles of the Samurai's Bushido code of right and wrong that's worth a look.

In all, the DVD package is not only extensive just for the sake of it, but designed, as distinct from thrown together using whatever was available. Good menus and decent navigation add to the smooth enjoyment of this release, with excellent sound and image quality deserving of your expensive home entertainment system.

Published May 13, 2004

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CAST: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Shun Sugata, Seizo Fukumoto, Masato Harada, Shin Koyamada

PRODUCER: Tom Cruise, Tom Engelman, Scott Kroopf, Paula Wagner, Edward Zwick

DIRECTOR: Edward Zwick

SCRIPT: John Logan

RUNNING TIME: 144 minutes

PRESENTATION: widescreen

SPECIAL FEATURES: Disc 1: audio commentary by director Edward Zwick. Disc 2: Tom Cruise-A Warrior's Journey; director Zwick's video journal; A Conversation with Zwick and Cruise; Production design with Lilly Kilvert; Costume design with Ngila Dickson; Imperial Army Basic Training; Soldiers to Samurai - weapons; deleted scenes; Japanese red carpet Premieres; trailer


DVD RELEASE: May 12, 2004

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