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All the reviews have been comparing The last Samurai to Dances with Wolves. On the surface, it has some similarities. Both tell the story of a soldier in the US Cavalry (Tom Cruise in Samurai, Kevin Costner in Wolves) who is tired of war and finds some peace of mind and their soulmates living with and being absorbed by a foreign culture. But being similar doesn't mean it's as good. The Last Samurai can't hold a candle to Dances with Wolves. It was better in every way. It had a lot of heart which The Last Samurai wants to have but doesn't. Kevin Costner, in his last pre-meglomania role, brings a lot of that heart to Dances with Wolves which Cruise just can't do or at least doesn't do in this film. The Last Samurai is basically just a star vehicle. I couldn't see Nathan Algren, the character that Cruise is playing. All I could see was Tom Cruise.
But The Last Samurai is not all bad. It is beautifully filmed by Edward Zwick, who has made some better films including Glory, Courage Under Fire and The Siege. Denzel Washington stars in all three. He would have made The Last Samurai a lot better. By the way, The Siege, made in 1998, is a good renter if you haven't seen it. It is eerily prescient of the post-9/11 era. But I digress. In addition to the beautiful cinematography, (New Zealand not Japan), there are a couple of nice performances. The standout is Ken Watanabe who plays the leader of the samurai who are resisting the Emperor's wish to modernize Japan. He is excellent. The other members of his group are good too, particularly Koyuki, who plays the widow of a man Cruise kills, and who later, predictably, falls in love with Cruise. The American characters led by Cruise's commanding officer (Tony Goldwyn) are a trifle one dimensional. Goldwyn has made a successful career out of playing one-dimensional bad guys starting with Ghost. Billy Connolly briefly adds some life to the film but he is an early casualty.
If you don't want to hear the ending of The Last Samurai, stop reading now!
I don't usually give away the end of a movie, but the end of The last Samurai is so unbelievable that it takes away any good feelings that you might have had for the rest of it. After learning the about ways of the samurai and follow their inevitable death spiral, we are treated to a classic Hollywood ending almost as far fetched as the fake one at the end of The Player. You may remember Bruce Willis saving Julia Roberts from the gas chamber. Anyway, Tom Cruise rides heroically into the climactic battle at Watanabe's side leading 500 warriors. They fight bravely with their swords, and bows and arrows against the Howitzers and Gatling guns of their enemy. Eventually, all 500 warriors lie dead. Somehow, only Watanabe and Cruise still live although wounded. Ok, that's unbelievable but we'll accept it for dramatic purposes. Cruise helps Watanabe commit suicide. Then, does Cruise also commit suicide? Does he stagger to his feet and die under the guns of the enemy? No, he survives, recovers, goes back to Watanabe's village, moves in with Koyuki and, you guessed it, lives happily ever after. Gag me with a spoon.