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The most interesting aspect of The Last Samurai as word spread about it’s pending production was quite possibly the timing of its release, coming off the back of arguably the most accomplished epics of all time, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. That fate of the film could have fallen two ways. Firstly, audiences might not have been ready to tackle yet another lengthy adventure when the characters of Frodo, Sam and the likes were still fresh in their minds. Sure, Tom Cruise might look like a Hobbit but buying him as a Samurai is a different story. Secondly, however, audiences could have still been in “epic mode” and more than willing to try their luck with another visual feast which promised to maintain that escapist aspect for at least another couple of hours. The latter managed to win out in the end, though the film was far from an overwhelming critical hit.

Last Samurai, The
Movie
Tom Cruise (officially still the dumbest, or most homosexual, man on earth after ditching “our Nicole”) plays Captain Nathan Algren, who is recruited by a highly-ranked Japanese military official to train its army in the art of modern weaponry. At the same time, the traditional Japanese warriors, the Samurai, have become more and more on edge with the way things are going on in their country. War is fast approaching, so Captain Algren is pressured into fast-tracking the young army’s training in order to mount an assault on the forthcoming Samurai warriors.

It becomes apparent that Algren’s Japanese soldiers are totally and utterly unprepared for what they must face, punctuated by a scene where he orders a nervous rifleman to shoot at him from close range. He misses. Algren’s point is made to the Japanese hierarchy yet they go ahead regardless. Billy Connolly provides some light relief before all hell breaks loose, with the gun-toting Japanese soldiers soon running for cover from the sword-wielding Samurai. During the rather large scuffle Captain Algren is surrounded and captured as the rest of his crew turn and run for their lives.

With luck on his side, Algren is spared after gaining the respect of the Samurai in the most unexpected fashion. They take him back to their tranquil environment where the real crux of the story begins. Here he meets Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, totally deserving of his Oscar nom), an accomplished Samurai warrior whose ways catch the eye of the usually gung-ho Captain Algren. It’s clear where the rest of the film is going, as Algren decides between the safety of modern warfare and the lure of ancient traditions inherent in the Samurai custom.

With the culture shock element of Lost In Translation and the ruthless battle scenes so obviously derived from Kurosawa and the likes, The Last Samurai at least has a strong structural pedigree, if not the style and substance of a real winner. Tom Cruise was the focus of much of the critical attention, and it seems rightly so. The one thing the film didn’t need was A-list star power to keep it going, so Cruise almost seems out of place as the wallowing former hero who needs a break from his mind and the bottle. Had a lesser-known been able to step in and put in a good turn, not only would the film have been much more effective as a whole but the actor would’ve instantly become flavour of the month. Easier said than done, admittedly, but it seems there was no need for the screen presence of Cruise to distract the viewer from all the other wonderful aspects of the production.

Ken Watanabe is flawless here as the dignified leader of a fading force. His interaction with Cruise is one of the highlights of the film, and one instance where the charisma of an established star has been used to good effect. The support cast are equally as capable, from Billy Connolly’s brief turn to Tony Goldwyn’s forthright Colonel. The smart use of the visuals to put forward the beauty and tranquillity of the Japanese landscape really does add to the occasion and makes it more than just a character piece with nothing decent to look at. Those thinking about travelling to Japan would’ve instantly jumped on a plane (especially after possibly being put off by the country’s portrayal in Lost In Translation) and headed over.

Last Samurai, The
Director Edward Zwick (who helmed a similar flick named Glory way back in 1989) shows a definite knack for manipulating audience feelings towards the characters, as we are privy to a different outlook on life by the Samurai and eventually Captain Algren. The lead-up to the final battle sequence shows incredible poise and restraint; while less patient directors might have sacrificed some important but slowly paced sequences in order to get to the epic finale, Zwick holds off until everything has fallen well and truly into place. And the battle has to be seen to be believed, rivalling the best of them for scale and effect.

Perhaps the criticism for Cruise is a little harsh as the guy is obviously giving it all for the sake of making Algren seem realistic. His star power works against him in some way because we’re forced to buy into him as a military leader before we even get to his character’s monumental change of heart. Nevertheless, it is by no means an ordinary performance, helped largely by a brilliant support cast, some stunning cinematography and the deft hand of Edward Zwick, who has pieced together a brilliant film. This isn’t your ordinary good vs evil battlefield spectacular, nor is it anything really new. But the way it is told and the depth of the story make it one of the best film released this year.

Video
The folks at Warner have pulled out all stops for this one, bringing us a brilliant looking 2.35:1 widescreen presentation without any visual flaws to speak of. The cinematography goes a long way to making this film look so good, yet the transfer tops it all off with incredible sharpness and vibrant colours. Black levels are great, giving the after dark scenes significant detail and allowing the colours to come out despite the darkness.

The only small gripe I would have with the transfer would be that some shots exhibit a little more visible grain than others, particularly some early establishing shots, though these are only minor occurrences that will go largely unnoticed. This is definitely a top notch transfer, making it a shame that we don’t award half marks because it’s as good as perfect without being so.

Audio
This is an interesting audio mix considering the shifts between action sequences and the tranquil surrounds of Japanese Samurai villages. Initially the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix uses the musical score by accomplished composer Hanz Zimmer to evoke certain responses from the audience. All the strings, beats and whistles are given equal footing on all the speakers for the duration of the film, with the score really kicking in during the less intense moments. The battle scenes tend to let the effects take over the rear speakers as the score is played out underneath. The rears are used intelligently to really give the feeling the surrounding action. Even the rain in the film sounds great as it comes down around you.

Last Samurai, The
There is very little else to say about the soundtrack, purely because it’s so good. While you won’t get the full effect of a real action-packed epic, the subtlety and overall mood pumped out through the speakers is nothing short of top shelf. And thankfully there’s very little between the dialogue driven moments and the battle sequences, meaning you can put your remote down for the duration. Outstanding.

Extras
The two-disc package isn’t let down by the extras section, with the first disc housing a commentary track with director Edward Zwick. He discusses the historical aspect of the film and its relevance to American legend, the use of costumes, set design and computer imagery to create the desired effect, and the editing trickery used for the complex battle sequences. Zwick, while quietly spoken, has no problem imparting a heap of information about the film to the listener, and on the whole this is a very informative track. It’s also interesting to hear of his influences for the film, namely works such as The Seven Samurai.

Moving on to disc two, we have four rather large featurettes to look over on the first page of extras. Tom Cruise: A Warrior’s Journey looks at Cruise’s character and his motivations for how he is portrayed. There are plenty of clips from the film used in amongst interviews with Cruise, Zwick and a few other major players. The thirteen minute featurettes is worth a look, though it does have an element of “press kit” about it which might turn some viewers away.

The next piece is Edward Zwick: Director’s Video Journal, where Zwick narrates behind the scenes footage from the production. It’s strange that we only have the option to hear Zwick commentate over the top, as the original audio may well have been just as interesting a listen. Overall it’s an interesting look at some of the methods used by the director on the film, and yet another opportunity for Zwick to offer more information about his movie.

Making An Epic: A Conversation With Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise is quite an interesting piece where Cruise and Zwick sit and chat about aspects of the production, from how Cruise originally became involved to how the both of them coped with the new customs thrown up by Japanese culture. While it may seem forced from the beginning, this piece soon turns into a very valuable insight into the minds of the two major creative players behind the production. The featurettes runs for around seventeen minutes and will please fans of the film no end.

Last Samurai, The
The last featurettes on page one is History vs Hollywood, a History Channel documentary on the film and its historical elements. The first few minutes just look like a pre-release making of fluff piece but we soon delve into the historical information surrounding the events of the film. It may seem a little cheesy but the piece is actually handled quite well. You’ll definitely learn a lot from this 21-minute featurette.

Moving on to page two, A World Of Detail is a production design featurette with Lilly Kilvert, head designer. There are original sketches compared to finished versions of the intricate sets, overviews of how the sets were constructed and pieced together and a walking tour of the main Japanese village where they shot much of the film. Kilvert is a great communicator and is very interesting to listen to, which makes this piece great to watch for those interested in style and design.

Silk and Armour is the costume design featurette we all knew would pop up for this film. Here accomplished costume designer Ngila Dickson takes us through how much historical ground is covered by the film and what that means for the costumes they used. Others also lend a hand, such as producer Paula Wagner talking about how Tom Cruise looks in his costumes with a flirty little glint in her eye. Another solid piece which runs for around seven minutes.

The Imperial Army Basic Training piece takes a conversation from the Conversations featurette (believe it or not) and looks at how the extras were trained up for the picture. Everything is covered, from firearm safety to the way the extras were disciplined when they did something wrong. It’s great to see how much hard work went into teaching the extras what they needed to know to make things technically and historically correct. A great piece.

Continuing on from the army training, From Soldier To Samurai: The Weapons looks at all the different firearms and weapons used for the film. The one thing that becomes immediately apparent is that a hell of a lot of work needed to be done to bring in, manufacture and repair the weapons over the length of the shoot. Gun freaks will lap this up, while others will probably find this quite interesting as well.

On the third page of extras and still going strong, the Bushido: Way Of The Warrior extra looks at the Bushido characters and what they meant to the Samurai (or as far as I can tell, please correct me if I’m wrong). Things such as polite courtesy, heroic courage and honor are explained via a text based system.

Also included are two deleted scenes, each with optional commentary from Edward Zwick. One involves a rather graphic beheading at the hands of a Samurai in the streets, while the other is a neat little scene between Katsumoto and Algren. Both could well have slotted straight back into the film but Zwick expresses his reasons for leaving them out in the commentary. There may only be two but it’s worth checking them out.

Last Samurai, The
Rounding out this extensive extras collection is a Japan Premieres featurette showing footage from the opening night in Japan as well as interviews with the cast and crew members walking the red carpet gauntlet. And just look at all those cameras! The last extra is the theatrical trailer, which was certainly one of the better trailers of recent times.

In all this is a very extensive extras lists, even though the featurettes seem to fit in as part of one big long piece. They do become much clearer in their current form, however, and most are well past the five minute mark so there’s real value in each of them. This is definitely a well-packed extras list that will make fans of the film very pleased.

Overall
Somehow the success of the epics continues post-Peter Jackson and crew. While there are more to come (Troy, etc), there is no doubt that audiences will be well pleased if any of them reach the heights of The Last Samurai. The two-disc set is how a big-budget new release should be packaged. The video and audio are superb while the extras will take you quite a while to sit through and are well worth a look. Definitely a worthy addition to your collection.


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