It’s pretty obvious that The Last Samurai is indebted to various great epics, blatantly ripping from films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Dances with Wolves. Samurai may play on the achievements of other flicks, but it successfully mixes these heavy influences resulting in a solid and insightful action film.
The film uses Lawrence of Arabia’s plot: a disgraced military officer Capt. Nathan Algren sent to contact enemy forces.
Nathan is captured by his foes, but while in shackles he realizes the forces he was trying to defeat are noble. He eventually joins them because he sees himself as their salvation.
Samurai’s major difference from Arabia is the film’s Japanese backdrop and beautiful craftsmanship brought to life by the movie’s war sequences.
Tom Cruise as Nathan is handed a rather strong role, but takes a restrained approach by underplaying the character. Cruise is an actor of great potential, but his performance in this film is bland at best. He only excels during the extravagant action segments.
When Nathan arrives in Japan, he thinks he will trade military training and strategies. This lucrative agreement is being backed by the U.S. government. Nathan begins the task of preparing his men by turning them into fighting machines. But he soon learns the nature of his presence: He is to take his army and hunt down a renegade samurai leader, Katsumoto. The rebel Katsumoto defied his emperor’s order in which all samurai must hand over their swords and become part of the progressive world. Katsumoto and his fellow compatriots would rather die than forsake the Samurai code that praises three virtues: strength, compassion and loyalty.
As the two forces engage in battle, Nathan tries to turn his men back into the action but is left on the battlefield where he fiercely battles against impossible odds. The warriors take notice of Nathan’s bravery and skill and take him as a prisoner rather than killing the noble Westerner. The rest of the film follows from there.
Director Edward Zwick has proven to be a genius at capturing breathtakingly large-scale battle scenes with added realism in flicks such as Glory, Courage Under Fire and Legends of The Fall. With Samurai, Zwick continues his epic filmmaking with hundreds of warriors and well choreographed fight sequences that serves as one of the main attractions of his latest work.
Samurai uses Dances with Wolves as an obvious point of reference. The film depicts Cruise in the earnest mold of Kevin Costner, another actor with a limited range in roles and skills. As such, The Last Samurai is a film with an endearing ambition sidetracked by the film’s need for a commercial and conventional ending.
The film’s conclusion is predictable, but one can’t expect true art from a Hollywood, big-budget action flick. That’s not to say Samurai doesn’t try to achieve a higher level of filmmaking, but the film’s ending is just typical “Hollywood” rather than something daring or innovative.
Samurai’s rather blatant swiping from other epics leaves it as a film that feels too familiar without any distinctive characteristics of its own. Samurai is still a smart, enjoyable action flick with enough popcorn entertainment to keep audiences on the edge on their seats.
Viewers shouldn’t expect a history lesson on Japan’s arrival as a world power, but instead to see Cruise as a noble, tortured American soldier whose behavior makes him a role model to all Samurai warriors.