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The Last Samurai

Honor and the Sword

When I think about the word "samurai" - Tom Cruise is not what first pops into my head. I'm thinking more along the lines of Akira Kurosawa. Mr. Cruise will best be known in my mind for his impeccable work in Risky Business. However, in his latest project, directed by Edward Zwick (known for his epic dramas), the actor plays a character who delves into the samurai tradition. Set in 1870's Japan, The Last Samurai explores notions of honor as only Hollywood can.

Tom Cruise is Nathan Algren, a disillusioned soldier with a drinking problem and a death wish; let's just say he has some major guilt issues with the fact that he's killed and helped to kill thousands of innocent Native Americans. But I digress. After being shuffled around a circus sideshow, Nathan gets recruited by the Japanese government to train their newly formed "Westernized" army to fight against the old school, tradition-bound Samurai warriors whom had been protecting the Emperor for thousands of years but had now outgrown their usefulness in the light of a rapidly modernizing world. When Nathan is captured by the samurai and exposed to their ancient ways of life, he (as expected) embraces them as his own. The guiding factor of this change is their leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) as well as his adorable, achingly cute nephews.

The movie features grandiose battle scenes reminiscent of the movie Braveheart with a plot already well trodden by numerous films of yore; Dances With Wolves previously covered the cinematic territory that this flick inhabits. Furthermore, there are several interspliced scenes shot in slo-mo that are meant to add an artistic depth but only serve to confuse. Cruise's acting style reminds me of a really macho, frat-boy who only shows emotions when he breaks down at funerals (or during the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl); tears and sorrow are painfully wrenched out of him.

There are three bright lights of hope in The Last Samurai: there are lots of good-looking people (the least of whom is Tom Cruise); the Japanese people actually speak Japanese instead of the broken, accented English that one sees so often in Hollywood movies set in non-English speaking countries (Case in point - Enemy at the Gates which is supposed to be set in Russia but in which no one actually speaks Russian. So, get ready to read subtitles and don't sit in back of someone tall (or with a big head); and the setting is breathtaking. The valley and village in which the samurai live are beautifully recreated and you really do feel you are in turn-of-the-century Japan. It also needs to be said that the acting is good- Cruise churns out his mandatory performance but Watanabe along with Shin Koyamada (who plays Katsumoto's son) and Timothy Spall (who plays a foppish British translator) steal every scene they grace.

For those of you whose stomachs don't turn watching Hollywood blockbusters starring celebrity A-listers, millions of dollars worth of fanfare and predictable storylines, then this movie be should put on your holiday movies-to-watch list. It'll be worth the ten bucks.