Last Samurai (The)
R4 - Australia - Warner Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (14th May 2004).
The Film

The Last Samurai had all the makings of an awesome movie, It had a great plot, a great director (Edward Zwick), a star-calibre actor (Tom Cruise), a great supporting cast, a big budget and beautiful natural New Zealand locations (yes, contrary to belief only a small percentage of the film was shot in Japan, almost all of the film's exteriors where shot in a part of New Zealand known as Taranaki). But at the end of the day this was just another Tom Cruise movie, just set in a different time period. And don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. You know, the films where Tom plays a guy who has failed in life somehow, has low-self esteem, but at one time in his life was the best at whatever he did. Until he takes a job that he doesn't really want, but does anyway only to learn through the strength of a woman that he can be all that he can be in fact he always was and then saves the world or something, you know movies like Top Gun, Days of Thunder, etc, etc, etc. They're all the same (with a few exceptions such as Magnolia and Born on the Fourth of July).
I have a love-hate relationship with Tom Cruise, but let's not turn this into some Tom-bashing, because this film does have its saving graces. Let's start with the plot.
We meet Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise, of course), a Civil War hero haunted by the brutality he witnessed during battle. His life has gone down the toilet, he's an alcoholic, non-caring, low-life who makes almost nothing to be the spokesperson for a rifle company. But his luck changes as he is headhunted by the US Army and the Imperial Army of Japan to go to Japan and train the modern army to fight the samurai armies and bury the traditions of the past to make way for the new Japan. To make a long story short he gets caught by the Samurais in a battle, of which his troops where not ready for in the first place, and is transported to the Samurai village as a prisoner. He is eventually looked after until healed and gets set up to live with the woman and her children of the Samurai he killed in battle. Algren progressively learns their ways and develops a friendship with the Samurai leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). And before you know it Algren is trained in the way of the Samurai becomes one of them and fights against what he originally came to Japan to fight for, the modern army.
This is sort of a Dances with Wolves-meets Samurai movie-meets Tom Cruise movie all rolled up into one. After having seen this film on the big screen I came away wondering how such a good idea could be a little unsatisfying, note the use of the word "little" because it wasn't a complete waste of time. And after a few moments I came to the answer, It was not only the fact that it was a typical Tom Cruise movie but there was more to it, the direction felt manipulative, as if playing with the audience's feelings (I don't know about you, but I like to make up my own mind about a character and not have to be forced to feel something) and team that up with a few cheesy lines you get a schmaltzy product. But this product isn't all that bad, despite all that this was an entertaining film, which can mainly be attributed to an amazing supporting cast, which includes Ken Watanabe, who delivered an Oscar nominated performance, and outshined Cruise in almost every scene. We also have great photography that shows off the stunning beauty of the locations, accurate and wonderful costumes and set pieces and well staged epic-scale battle scenes that will keep all the guys happy, which in all honesty saved this film from being an all out dog. This is basically a big-budget Hollywood movie masquerading as an intelligent epic film that was watchable and enjoyable at times. Wow I didn't think that was possible.

Video

The film is presented in its original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. Warner Brothers have done a great job in transferring this film to the digital medium. The image is sharp, colours are well represented and the black levels are top notch. I don't think I've seen the dark scenes in any movie look as sharp as the ones in this transfer. Kudos Warner Brothers this is an A+ effort all the way.

Audio

This DVD offers the film in both an English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track. For the purpose of this review I chose to view the film with its English 5.1 track. A film such as the Last Samurai features quite a few challenging tasks for a sound-mixer. This film is split into many sound fields, we have roaring battle scenes, dialogue driven scenes, and tranquil nature inspired locations, and a beautiful score by Hanz Zimmer. But Warner Brothers again deliver a wonderfully mixed and powerful track that compliments the equally good transfer. You can feel the depth of the battle scenes, the dialogue is always clear, the atmospheric sounds of nature, waterfalls, birds, wind, etc are balanced well and the score comes out with a magnificence that cannot be described in words. The only thing I can think of to make this track better is if we were given a DTS option, otherwise this is one of the best Dolby mixes I have ever heard. The film also includes optional subtitles in English and Italian.

Extras

Warner Brothers pulled all the stops with this release and gave us a 2-Disc set worthy of the title "Special Edition. The first disc includes a director's commentary. The second disc includes a documentary, 5 featurettes, a director's video journal, an interview with the director, 2 deleted scenes, premiere footage, the film's trailer and some text notes.

The audio commentary on disc one features Edward Zwick, primarily focuses on historical references as well as cinematic references and technical aspects such as the intricate costume and set design which helps the viewer transport themselves into the time period. He also gives background information on some of the CGI elements in the film used to create the stunning battle scenes particularly the battle near the end of the film. Zwick is a very soft spoken person, and the commentary lacks enthusiasm making it a little daunting to listen to all the way through, which is the only negative aspect I've picked up for an otherwise informative track.

Disc two includes the bevy of extra features split onto three submenus screens. The first includes the "Tom Cruise: A Warrior’s Journey" EPK style featurette, running in at 13 minutes this looks at Tom Cruise's transportation into his character and includes interviews cut into scenes from the movie.

Nest we have "Edward Zwick: Director’s Video Journal" This includes behind-the-scenes footage with a commentary by the director. This gives us a first hand look at creating this film from the director's perspective. This is a nice piece that should be included on all DVD releases and is a welcome addition to the extras.

The next extra on the first page is "Making An Epic: A Conversation With Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise" an interview style featurette where both talk about their interest in the project as well as the varying challenges they had to overcome to make this film.

The longest extra is the 21 minute "History Vs Hollywood: The Last Samurai" documentary, produced by the History Channel this documentary focuses on the historical elements of the film.

After those extras we now find ourselves on the second sub-menu of extras. The first extra on the second page is "A World Of Detail: Production Design With Lilly Kilvert" featurette, which covers the design aspect of the production from the original sketches to the finished sets and a tour of the village, this is a great piece that highlights the importance of making the sets look as authentic and real as possible.

The next featurette we have is "Silk And Armour: Costume Design With Ngila Dickson" featurette is much like the set design featurette before it except focusing on the costumes for the film. Here we learn how Ngila Dickson strived to keep the costumes as accurate to the time as possible with an amazing detail applied to each piece of clothing. Dickson earned an Academy Awards nomination for her work on this film, which was absolutely well deserved.

Next we have "Imperial Army Basic Training" featurette, which looks at the training the many extras in this film went through. It was a boot camp for extras where they would learn handling a weapon, movement, discipline etc.

Following that we have another nice featurette entitled "From Soldier To Samurai: The Weapons" this is a close look at the various weapons used in the film that include the side arms, rifles, swords, etc.

After those featurettes we now get to the third sub-menu page where we will find "Bushido: The Way Of A Warrior" these are text notes that outline the Samurai way and traditions.

We also have 2 deleted scenes, the first is "the Beheading" which shows a graphic beheading cut for being too violent and the second we have a scene with Algren and Katsumoto cut for time reasons. Both scenes include an optional commentary by Zwick.

Rounding out the extras we have some footage from the Tokyo premiere of the film, which includes interviews of the cast and crew from the red carpet gala as well as the theatrical trailer for the film.

Overall

Tom Cruise fans will certainly eat this up, as will fans of the genre. Although not the greatest of epics it was however entertaining. The DVD provides a awesome presentation of the film and extras that are worth every cent of the price.

The Film: C+ Video: A+ Audio: A+ Extras: A+ Overall: B+

 


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