Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren
Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto
Timothy Spall as Simon Graham
Billy Connolly as Zebulon Gant
Tony Goldwyn as Colonel Bagley
Hiroyuki Sanada as Ujio
Koyuki as Taka
Shichinosuke Nakamura as The Emperor
Shun Sugata as Nakao
Seizo Fukumoto as The Silent Samurai
Masato Harada as Omura
Shin Koyamada as Nobutada
The Last Samurai is an epic movie. It feels like a cross between Dances with Wolves and Gladiator, which is not bad company to be in since both films won Oscars for best picture. This time the foes with the seas of troops are the modernizing Japanese Imperial Army versus a band of Samurai warriors led by the emperor's former teacher and advisor Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).
The problem is that the Imperial Army has no experience in the use of modern weapons, and rifles are only effective in the hands of troops that know how to use them. For this expertise, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) an American hero of the Civil War and the suppression of American Indian uprisings is called upon to train the troops in the art of modern war.
Cruise's performance is captivating. His Algren is haunted by the demons of his brutal past and the realization that he is best suited only for the destruction of other peoples lives. Algren's self loathing and amorality is offset perfectly by Katsumoto and his drive to be pure in his service to his emperor and himself. Ken Watanabe's name should get some mention at Oscar time for best supporting actor.
Along with the high caliber acting is some of the best cinematography that you will see this year. The images are lush and expansive. From the large scale set piece battles to cherry blossoms floating on the wind, the camera captures the details beautifully and throws them onto the screen. This year's Oscar for best cinematography will be a tough one, but The Last Samurai is up there with Open Range, Master and Commander, and (presumably) Return of the King.
All of this is riding on the back of a well laid-out plot that flows effortlessly through the 144 minute runtime of the film, making it seem like a much shorter movie. Even when there is not frenetic action on the screen, every scene moves the story forward and draws you further into the film. But the plot also contains the element I like least about the film. I felt the ending was not honest to the rest of the film and could have been made much stronger. It is not a bad ending - just not as good as it could have been.
Who should see this movie. If you are a Tom Cruise fan, you will not be disappointed. He gives another strong performance and should please even people that do not like him much. Action fans will love the intense battles as well as the sword and gunplay throughout the movie. For the romantic, there is a slight romantic subplot which, while adding greatly to the overall depth of the movie, is far secondary to the action. Unusual for a movie that is mostly action, there are some thought-provoking scenes and it should engage the mind of those in the audience. Historically speaking, none of the events happened; but the events mirror what did happen and some of the characters look like they could be based upon real people.
In Hollywood you do not always get what you pay for, but the $100 million budget of The Last Samurai is clearly on the screen. This is one of those movies that will just look better on a movie screen than it will look on the confines of a television set, and it is well worth going and watching.