The Last Samurai


The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise teaches modern warfare tactics to the Scientologists.

(2003) Action (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Spall, Masato Harada, Togo Igawa, Shin Koyamada, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, Shun Sugata, Sosuki Ikematsu, Aoi Minato, Shichinosuke Nakamura. Scott Wilson. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

Over the lives of those who devote themselves to the art of war and a life of dealing death, a question of honor must always hover. For what cause does one fight, kill, die? What can be worth the moral choices of taking another human life?

For Nathan Algren (Cruise), the morality of being a warrior has become murky. A hero of the American Civil War, he has grown disillusioned and bitter, having seen carnage inflicted on women and children by cowardly officers bent more on making names for themselves than fulfilling their mission during the Indian Wars. Algren has become an alcoholic, a shell and a parody of himself, shilling the Winchester rifle and using whiskey to medicate his emotional pain.

For Katsumoto (Watanabe), the morality is clear. A samurai whose life is given in service to his emperor, the world is becoming a colder, crueler place. As Japan moves reluctantly to modernize and traffic with the rest of the world, the changes that are brought into that country are sometimes painful, and Katsumoto can clearly see the end of his way of life approaching. However, his unwavering devotion to his country and the emperor makes him and his kind targets of those who seek to create a new Japan, one that will profit them above all.

Algren is invited to Japan by his former commander Bagley (Goldwyn) and a Japanese railroad magnate Omura (Harada) to modernize the Imperial Japanese Army and teach it to use the weapons of Western war. Emperor Meiji (Nakamura) is enamored of the West and is a little weak, but his mentor, Katsumoto, still has his ear, making him dangerous to Omura and those like him. Katsumoto is trying to get the emperor to rethink his plans, but is ultimately forced from court and into rebellion when Omura’s assassins fail.

Algren at first is little more than a hired hand, but after being captured by Katsumoto, he is brought to a remote mountain village which is Katsumoto’s home, and is exposed to the samurai life and code, and begins to heal, not just from the wounds inflicted in the battle, but also in his spirit, where his pain has been festering for so long. Hired to destroy the samurai, Algren at last joins them, despite facing terrible odds.

The shadow of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of all time, is evident here. Director Edmund Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Glory, Legends of the Fall) was heavily influenced by the man in the director’s chair for such classics as Ran, Rashomon and Yojimbo. In fact, a screening of Seven Samurai when Zwick was 14 provided the young man with a lifelong interest in Japan and in movies as well. In the battle scenes, particularly, Zwick pays the master a great deal of homage in the way he sets his scenes up, although not nearly as poetically and poignantly as did Kurosawa.

This interest in Japan led Zwick to read Ivan Morris’ “The Nobility of Failure,” the account of Saigo Takamori, a real-life samurai in the Meiji court who at first embraced but eventually renounced the modernization of Japan. The roots of The Last Samurai can be found here.

Zwick succeeds in creating a rich landscape of intrigue and honor, as the loyal, honorable samurai are faced with the treacherous, scheming industrialists. There is a love interest as Algren falls for the widow (Koyuki) of a samurai he had slain, and it is there that the two cultures meet most poignantly, and most awkwardly.

Cruise does a difficult job nicely here. In a role that changes from a washed-up, alcoholic, bitter man into a courageous, honorable warrior, Cruise carries both of these facets of the Algren character nicely, and allows us to see the progression from one to the other. Seeing this again reminds me that although he is best known as the charismatic movie star, Tom Cruise can really act when he gets the right part.

Although Cruise is the center of the movie, he is overshadowed by the spectacular performance of Watanabe. Katsumoto is a wise man, a beloved leader and a magnificent tactician, but also melancholy, knowing the life he has loved is slipping away and that he is unlikely to survive its passing. Watanabe is subtle, which is not something Japanese actors are traditionally known for. He creates a character rich in contradictions and complexities, and lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. He would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance and even though he didn’t win, the movie established him in Hollywood where he would go on to roles in major films including Batman Begins.

Character actors Billy Connelly and Timothy Spall also put in solid performances. The battle scenes are truly memorable – this is where the Kurosawa influence most obviously comes into play. Zwick is also very good at establishing a good sense of period. Although the visual Kurosawa references can be a little heavy-handed at times, Zwick wisely chooses to put his own stamp on The Last Samurai, and that’s what makes for a good movie. Sure, there are elements of Ran but there are elements of Glory in the battle sequences as well.

The film has epic, sweeping landscapes, wonderfully staged battle scenes and allows us to view a culture very much misunderstood even to this day, and gives us a chance to see how Japan started on the road into becoming the mega-commercial technological giant it is in the 21st century.

Still, what ultimately makes this an excellent movie is that it is about the journey of the people in it. It is much harder to comprehend the journeys of nations; we can’t relate to them as easily. It is far easier to relate to the growth of individuals, something we are (hopefully) all doing throughout our lives.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely staged battle scenes. Watanabe gives a searing, career making performance. Beautiful Kurosawa-esque cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Probably about 20 minutes too long.

FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are fairly realistic and might be disturbing for some. There is plenty of bloodshed and some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although the film implies the Americans trained the Imerial Army, historically it was the Prussians who actually did.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD contains a feature comparin the film to the actual historical events at the time. There’s also footage from the film’s Japanese premiere.¬† The Blu-Ray adds a text piece onbushido, the code of the samurai.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456.8M on a production budget of $140M; the movie was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shogun

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Piranha 3DD

Big Stan


Big Stan

The authorities catch up to Rob Schneider after the last Deuce Bigalow movie.

(2007) Comedy (Crystal Sky) Rob Schneider, David Carradine, Jennifer Morrison, Scott Wilson, Richard Kind, Sally Kirkland, M. Emmett Walsh, Henry Gibson, Jackson Rathbone, Kevin Gage, Bob Sapp, Brandon Jackson, Dan Haggerty, Richard Riehle, Marcia Wallace, Randy Couture. Directed by Rob Schneider

 

Fear can be an awfully effective motivator. When something makes us quake in our boots, it’s amazing the things we can do to protect ourselves or at the very least, keep our worst fears from coming true.

Big Stan (Schneider) is a real estate salesman whose real job is to swindle the elderly out of their hard earned dollars to buy timeshares in undesirable neighborhoods and make a killing by convincing them to pay luxury accommodation prices. He gets caught eventually and convicted although his conniving lawyer (Walsh) convinces the judge (Riehle) to give Stan six months to settle up his affairs before heading off to jail.

Stan is not the biggest rooster in the henhouse, although he has a gorgeous wife (Morrison) whom he’s crazy about. However, what he’s even crazier about is the thought that he’s going to be raped repeatedly in prison; he’s paranoid about it like Nixon. He finds himself a martial arts teacher who calls himself The Master (Carradine) who agrees to teach him how to defend himself. His methods are, to say the least, unusual. Even so, Stan manages to become an adept martial artist, so much so that the Master labels him his number two disciple.

Eventually Stan is sent to prison where he encounters some of the meanest, roughest prisoners you’ll ever meet – and Stan kicks all of their asses. He becomes the prison’s number one badass and the warden (Wilson), knowing about Stan’s real estate expertise, seeks out his help in a scheme to raze the prison and turn the site into luxury condos. Stan and the prisoners get together to expose the warden’s nefarious plan but can they stand together? Or will Stan, targeted by the Master’s number one student, fall alone?

Schneider’s film career has been checkered to say the least. His Deuce Bigalow films have made Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura films look positively highbrow by comparison. Schneider himself however has always been a likable presence even in the movies with the least amount of appeal. I was fortunate enough to interview him years ago (just after he left SNL) and found him to be a really nice guy and one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever done. I know there are a lot of people who don’t like his persona, but I’m not one of them.

This is a bit of a departure for Schneider in that there are martial arts sequences and action, something he hasn’t done in most of his studio films except for comic effect. The action sequences here – considering that Schneider hasn’t directed such things before and he has to direct himself in them – are surprisingly well done, and Schneider (who does his own stunt work) is a very competent martial artist. I was mildly surprised to say the least.

Now the movie is almost like two movies – the first part when the Master trains Stan is one movie with one tone and the second part set in the prison another movie with a different tone. I’m not sure which movie I liked better – the first part had the most funny portions of the film (and there aren’t many) but I liked the action portions in the second, so I’d give it to the second by a hair if pressed. The tonal shift however is a bit disconcerting to the casual viewer.

I wish the script had been funnier but there is a sweetness factor that gives it some points. There is far too much reliance on prison rape and the fear of it as a comedy point and it gets driven home a little too much. We get it. Prison rape is bad. Stan doesn’t want to get raped in prison. His butt is sacred. No need to nag.

The movie never got a theatrical release despite being on the schedule for five different dates. The distributors ultimately thought the movie would be unprofitable in any sort of limited release (although it did surprisingly well overseas) and wound up being sold to another distributor who immediately put it on direct-to-video. I’m not going to lie and tell you that this is the second coming of Gone With the Wind but it’s better than a lot of releases that make it onto the schedule. You could do a lot worse than renting this.

WHY RENT THIS: Despite everything Schneider is kind of lovable despite himself. He acquits himself nicely doing his own martial arts sequences. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not particularly funny and there’s a little too much emphasis on prison rape.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is crude and sexual in places. The language is pretty rough throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The prison scenes were shot in a closed women’s prison in Stockton. During filming there Schneider collapsed from heat exhaustion and food poisoning¬† when temperatures soared during the summer shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.7M on an unreported production budget; it’s likely that the movie broke even at least or made a modest profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Longest Yard

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Chop Shop