Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is an American hero honored for his deeds as an Indian fighter. But for Algren his so called heroism produces only trauma, which he tries to drown in alcohol. Algren is one of those rare soldiers who, when tasked to fight people from a different culture, canít help empathizing with them. While this compassion for the enemy tears him apart, it also elevates him to a special kind of warrior.
It is this warrior Katsumoto (Watanabe) understands. Katsumoto is the leader of the last remaining true samurai warriors in a time when western influence is dramatically changing his country. Part of the way of the samurai warrior is to be ďcourteous even to his enemies. Without this outward show of respect, we are nothing more than animals.Ē
When Algren is offered a job to train the Japanese army in western warfare and with western weapons, the Japanese government asks Algren to take his still green troops into battle to suppress a Samurai uprising. Itís here that Algren and Katsumoto meet. Katsumoto observes how Algren continues to fight long after his troops are defeated. Impressed by Algrenís courage, Katsumoto spares his life and takes him prisoner. Over a long winter in his mountain retreat, the two enemies gradually learn about each other. With that knowledge comes respect.
Director Edward Zwick takes the time to subtly show this growing respect and the actors are marvelous at conveying volumes with one glance or one small gesture. Indeed, bringing opposites together is what gives this film its tremendous energy. Not only is there the opposition of warriors but also Katsumotoís sister Taka, whose husband Algren killed in battle, is tasked to take care of the wounded Algren. Though not without some protest to her brother, Taka (Koyuki) is also extremely kind to her enemy. Over time we are drawn in to Algrenís subtle changes and are not surprised when his allegiances shift and he begins to fight for the samurai.
If you liked the movie Dances With Wolves or the television miniseries Shogun, youíll love The Last Samurai. But The Last Samurai shares one major weakness with Dances With Wolves. Both films portray good verses evil with few shades of gray on either side. The makers of The Last Samurai also feel obligated to supply a feel good Hollywood ending that just doesnít fit the storyline.
However, this drama is so well done that the filmís weaknesses will be overshadowed by the way audiences will be totally taken in by how this drama shows that no matter how civilized we become, we are never far from an evolutionary past with life and death battles for survival. Indeed, it is the primal warrior that we long for most in modern civilization, for only there can we find satisfaction and honor.
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