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A friend of mine told me that I really need to see this film. Our tastes in film vary and we're not always on the same page, but I figured I would give him the benefit of the doubt. One thing that was apparent to me at the box office is that this film is a guy film. Oh, they tried to soften it up a little, but it's still a guy film. Guys like swords. Go figure.
I didn't hate it. It was quite moving at points, though I did have to completely ignore Tom Cruise to get the full effect. You see, the story behind this film is a compelling one, but American audiences won't go to see a film about a samurai uprising unless there's a white face muddying the waters.
For a full background on the film's setting, I highly recommend that you read The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by Mark Ravina. For the purposes of this movie and its' review, I will give you the fillet.
Since the death of Richard Chamberlain, Japan has had increased contact with Western civilizations. The young Emperor Maiji (played by Shichinosuke Nakamura) has decided that the time has come to modernize Japan is all respects, and all at once. Captains of industry are brought in from Europe and America to kickstart an Industrial Revolution in Japan, and massive monetary contracts are on the line. The new Japanese bureaucracy has also sought out several decorated soldiers from the American Civil War and expansion Westward to train their fledgling national army in the use of modern weapons. Until this point, order was kept by regional daimyo (governors) and their samurai. At the time that we enter the story, we learn that many of the samurai have elected to decline national service. They will not use firearms, as battles fought with firearms are battles fought without honor.
This contrary movement is led by famed samurai Saigo Takamori, who has been renamed Katsumoto for the purposes of the film. He had been a driving force behind the modernization effort, only to realize too late that modernization meant the end of a need for the samurai. Throughout the film, he fights against the new government while fighting for what he thinks the Emperor should do. Takamori is remembered as a poet, statesman, scholar, ruler, servant and warrior.
Tom Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a Civil War and Indian Campaign "hero" who hates everything about what he has become. He drinks to take the edge off of nightmares, not caring to remember the massacres in which he took part in the effort to make the West safe for colonization. He is brought to Japan to train conscripts in the new Imperial Army. When Katsumoto's samurai sabotage a railway, Cruise is ordered to lead the FNGs against the smaller force. After all, they won't even use firearms!
Cruise's recruits have spent their whole lives in awe and fear of the samurai, and are immediately routed. Cruise recoils at the sight of men beheaded left and right, and is crushed at the killing of his sergeant (played ably but too briefly by Billy Connolly). As the battle draws to a quick close, Cruise is the only one who continues fighing and who appears ready to die in battle. His pistol is empty and he is fighting with a spear and his sabre.
Katsumoto takes Cruise with him, and the soundtrack from DANCES WITH WOLVES begins to play. He's a captive, but the honor that was seen in him allows him to be trained in the ways of bushido. Plot comes to a head, and he must choose whether he will obey orders and lead the Imperial Army against the samurai. Read the movie title again and make your best guess.
I'll say again that I did not hate the film. I feel that Cruise's involvement detracted from a compelling story, but his offenses could have been much more egregious. He refrained from overacting and was well presented as a character secondary in importance to Katsumoto. There were no wire-fighting techniques in evidence. The battles were bloody and people died in a fairly reasonable fashion. Cruise was given no godlike powers as a swordsman. There is a subtle but strained romantic interest which is thankfully NOT overplayed, considering the circumstances.
Are you familiar with the battle of Thermopylae?
Kudos go to Hans Zimmer for the excellent score, and to the sound editing department for making the music really work for the film. There is a truly excellent moment towards the end of the film that showed real craftsmanship. The music sounds as the battle rages. The tension builds, and suddenly you realize that the battle cannot be heard. The battle has bled from the soundtrack, and only the music is left. It may not have been intended as such, but it was a moving moment.
All in all, I believe that I can recommend this movie in good conscience. The story is remarkable and true (except for whitey), Tom Cruise doesn't offend too greatly, the cinematographer didn't fall into the trap of thinking that it's HIS film and a good time was had by most. There are worse ways to blow eight dollars, especially if you live near Ponce.
Funny. Now, I want to see KILL BILL again. Right now.
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