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The Last Samurai

A bad movie is one thing. A film that comes within a hairs breadth of greatness and then not merely drop the ball, but drops it on the 99 yard line, gets turned around and scores a touchdown for the opposing team is a great deal different, as well as a great deal more painful. The Last Samurai is such a film; a movie that does so much right, but then sabotages itself with the most illogical and out of place ending since AI. The Last Samurai is about Tom Cruise. Yeah sure his character’s name Nathan Algren but the last time anybody went to see a Tom Cruise movie with his character in mind was well never. Anyway Tom Cruise is wracked with guilt after wiping out an entire race. He spends his time drinking and selling guns, and then terrorizing the customers while drunk with the guns that he was selling. This all changes when Tom Cruise’s old commander comes and gives him the revolutionary idea of training people in Japan to use guns while terrifyingly drunk, thus cutting out the middle man. Despite the fact that they loath each other, Cruise accepts the job and happily awaits the day his paycheck comes and he can drink some more. Cruise’s untrained and untested troops are sent to put down a Samurai uprising and everyone is massacred except for Cruise, because of a psychic vision that is awkwardly inserted and never mentioned again. He is captured, learns the beauty of the Samurai life style from the rebel leader Katsumoto, and steels himself for the worst ending ever to plague a motion picture.

In the end its Tom Cruise that is the problem. I’m not saying he’s bad in the film, and I certainly don’t subscribe to the school of thought that says he’s the anti-christ. In the right hands Cruise can be a hell of an actor (Born on the Fourth of July) or a hell of an entertainer (Minority Report) but the fact stands that he is simply too big, he’s a distracting presence in this film. It’s Cruise who puts the focus on Algren instead of Katsumoto. It’s Cruise for whom the AI bad ending was made and ultimately it’s Cruise who made the movie about some white guy mooching off the Samurai rather then the final days of a beautiful way of life.

However, even with my laundry list of complaints it cannot be denied that there is true greatness in this film. Ken Wantanabe gives a great performance as the rebel leader Katsumoto. Full of ferociousness, humor, and humanity, people might leave trying to remember the name of Cruise’s character but they will have not forgotten a single thing about Wantanabe. Ed Zwick continues to be one of the few people who can shoot like David Lean and not look like a pathetic pretender to the crown. He shoots New Zealand so beautifully that it is hard to believe that it truly is not 18th century Japan. And, even though he is never quite able to shake the star persona, Cruise does have some excellent moments. The production, costume, and props design is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. A fight with a group of Ninja assassins is so good that you will forget to breathe, the big fights are epic and rousing, and a love story that by all rights should be tacked on turns out to be full of tenderness.

So in the end even if The Last Samurai loses its grip on greatness it does have a firm hold on goodness and that it is a testament to how well most of the film works To get the technical stuff out of the way sound and video transfer are fine, but really that is sort of a givein in a release as big as this and is no better or worse then the normal big budget blockbuster.

The extra’s begin on Disc One, with Edward Zwick’s commentary. While informative and done in good humor, the flaw of his commentary and for that matter the rest of the extras ironically mirrors the flaw of the film. Too much god damned Tom Cruise. While Watanabe is barely given a passing nod, the man just simply cannot stop jabbering about how wonderful Tom Cruise is, and the effect on the commentary is the same effect that this had in the movie.

Disc Two starts with a History channel documentary. As any channel surfer knows the History Channel has the odd quality of being completely engrossing even though you might have no interest in the subject. This documentary has the same power, if not up with the top tier of the channel’s usual output. While playing a little too much like a promo (which to be fair it is) the documentary is able to shed some interesting light about how the shades of gray in reality have been changed to convenient black and white for the film. It runs about twenty minutes and is worth your time.

Then there’s “Ed Zwick A Directors Video Journal”. The title says about all that can be said. It’s an interesting look into Zwick’s thought process but not quite on par with the excellent one that Wes Anderson provided for the Royal Tenenbaums. Unsurprisingly, this features more Tom Cruise as he takes partial narration duties. Tom pops up some more with “Tom Cruise a Warrior’s Journey”. While not any better or worse then the average “Isn’t He/She So Great” featurette, it does make sure that if you haven’t overdosed on Tom Cruise exposure yet, you certainly will now. That’s followed up with “Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick”. On its own this is interesting, though a little overly polite and dry. But after watching the commentary AND the video journal, the man starts to sound pretty repetitive.

Unfortunately it is the most remarkable part of The Last Samurai that gets the shortest shift. The production, props, and costume designs, all get stuck with barely more than five minute shorts. So lets get this straight: You have a film with utterly breathtaking design that managed to change New Zealand to Japan and create the most fascinating, convincing and engrossing world since Gangs of New York, and all of that gets a few five minute little nothings. While they do the best they can, these things just skim the surface. Actually I take that back, I’m being too generous. These features do not even skim the surface, they just kind of wave their hands in the air over the surface, and pretend they skimmed it. Shameful. But I guess they just had to make way for more TOM CRUISE!!!

Finally there are two deleted scenes which aren’t that interesting, and an optional commentary over them, which defines uninterested. Then there is footage of the film’s premieres in Kyoto and Tokyo, which I suppose is OK but I am desperately searching for a reason that anyone would wish to watch it. Unless of course you’re Rupert Pupkin. In that case this is valuable surveillance footage to help you plan your attack. Otherwise, once again the only reason that this is here is so you can see even more Tom Cruise.

Wrapping things up you get the trailer which is a nice piece of work, but not on the best. Still its nice of them to include it especially when more and more movies are beginning to leave the trailers off.

All in all a nice disk, but be warned, watch it all at once and you might find yourself permanently sick of Tom Cruise. You can probably tell that I am.