I missed out on The Last Samurai in the theater. I am not sure why I chose to skip it given I am a huge fan of samurai films and really any Asian swordplay film that follows realism. Perhaps I doubted Tom Cruise or the story. If so, those doubts were unfounded as now having seen the film I have to say it is a great film and easily one of the best of last year. It has a great story, great performances, superb direction, and is a beautiful production. It hits all the right marks and has a number of great action sequences. Definitely my kind of film and very likely one you will enjoy too.
The Last Samurai is about a man plagued by personal demons who is transported from his known world to one that is completely foreign but is the place where this man finds redemption and a new sense of purpose. Set in 1876, we meet up with Col. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a soldier with no war or current battle who spends his time drinking and promoting rifle sales. That comes to a quick end and Algren is recruited by an old war buddy Grant (Billy Connolly) to have a meeting with a visiting Japanese official who is offering a job to train troops over in Japan. The Army wants this done as the Japanese will spend big bucks on weapons and ammunition. Heading the project is Benjamin Brady (Tony Goldwyn), Algren's superior in rank who also has a bad past with Algren. Seems Brady led Algren and others against some Native American Indians and something bad happened that left Algren with a strong to desire to drink and to wipe the floor with Brady. Algren takes the job as it is a lot of money and heads to Japan. There he and Grant begin training the soldiers, soldiers for the Emperor, who are going to be used to push Japan into the modern world of warfare. Their first task is to take out the Emperor's teacher Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) who is a samurai and who leads a small group of samurai who believe the old ways of Bushido and nobility should not be forgotten. Given the Emperor is young and inexperienced; he is easily forced into the beliefs of his advisors who are basically businessmen out to turn around the past ideals of Japan into more of a world player. Algren has no problem with this but doesn't think the soldiers are ready for their first attack. They go out and are slaughtered by the Katsumoto and his crew. Algren is taken captive given he matches a vision Katsumoto had. Algren is forced to spend the entire winter season in Katsumoto's village. There he is forced to overcome his addition to alcohol. Once he has a free mind, he beings to try and understand his enemy and eventually learns of just how noble Katsumoto and the samurai way is. He befriends his enemy, learns their customs, and becomes rather accepted. The time to return and fight comes up and Algren must decide which side to stand on.
The Last Samurai is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This Warner release is really quite something to see. The image is incredible sharp which is a must given the lush cinematography. As I said the image is highly defined with tons of detail in the fore and background. Small object details really shine in the Japanese village in which Cruise's character lives for the winter. Colors are bold and striking with no smearing. Reds are indeed red with no concerns whatsoever. Black level and contrast settings are right on target with excellent shadow delineation and no haloing. The print is pristine and the compression job is without fail. All I can say is that I hope you have a large screen display to be able to take in the beauty of this transfer.
English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are included for this release. The English 5.1 is a rolling track that really shines as impressive as the video does. Hans Zimmer's score is in excellent form here, nicely spread across the entire soundstage which is quite wide and immersive. Sound effects too have equal time to impress from the fronts as well as the surrounds, all working together to give you the feel that you are there in the action. My only areas of complaint would be that the surrounds don't get subtle sounds to echo out nor is the bass as forceful as one might expect during the final battle sequence. Aside from those personal criticisms this is a very fine track with nice clear dialogue and no distortion or real problems of note. Being a rabid anime fan who has heard a crazy amount of Japanese dialogue over the years, I (who really am not any kind of authority other than the fan type) was quite impressed with Cruise and his pronunciations. He seemed to have the language down quite well and that just added to my enjoyment of the film and the audio track which easily lets you hear all the nuances of his pronunciations.
Now is time for the supplements. Director Edward Zwick provides an audio commentary for the film. Zwick is a calm and relaxing speaker who offers up a lot of well spoken information on the film. We get to learn of the locals, the obstacles, and of Cruise and his dedication to the film. Zwick seems to have been very impressed with Cruise's level of participation.
That covers disc 1 so as we move to disc 2 we find a number of featurettes. Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey (13m) is all about Cruise. We learn of his long training (weapons, attire, language, mannerisms), his thoughts on the culture, and hear from some others involved with the production on how impressed they were Cruise's dedication.
Next is Edward Zwick: Director's Video Journal (26m) which is a video diary of parts of the shoot as seen on location. Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise (17.5m) which is more exposition on the two main forces behind the film and their vision of what this film was to be and what came to fruition. History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai (22m) is an all too short History Channel piece on the film and the world of Japan at the end of the 1800's in which the film takes place.
Now we know about the film and its setup and all that, so time for featurettes on aspects of the film that required utmost authenticity. In this list of featurettes is A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert (7m), Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson (6m), Imperial Army Basic Training (5m) and From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons (5m).
Next up is a text based feature titled Bushido: The Way of the Warrior. This one explains the seven principles of Bushido and is an interesting piece.
Featurettes done we now move on to some deleted scenes, two in fact, with optional commentary. Interesting but nothing all that great. Last up we find some footage of the Japanese Premiere of the film with all the stars plus a trailer for the film.
DVD-ROM features are included too such as a link to a website with more interviews and text based information. The interviews are a bit redundant but the text stuff is interesting given its historical basis.
The Last Samurai is an impressive film in every way. From the performances to the direction to the production in general, the film is very good cinema. Personal redemption is a story that relates so well, and given this story is infused with end of the Samurai, the film is one not to miss. The DVD is a fine effort with a great transfer and audio plus a wealth of informative and insightful extras. Own it and own it now.
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