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"The Last Samurai"

"The Last Samurai" ... a stunning spectacle.

IN THE sweep of the vast expanse of visuals the film unfolds — with a kind of a mesmerising ardour that triumphs over your reluctance to climb out of its stunning spectacle of a time long gone, of men who believe honour is everything, of men finding redemption in an outpost, and of a story (John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick) that might even seem preposterous.

Warner Bros' "The Last Samurai" is an indulgence of the nice kind. Other than of course the premise that a beleaguered American soldier in 19th century Japan, finds solace fighting alongside the last rebellious band of men known as the Samurais and a whiff of condescension that it is only when an American feels the nobility of the Samurais that others would feel it too!

You are willing to forgive that in the context of the larger picture, which unfailingly provides a sense of grandeur, marvellous cinematography and dexterously choreographed battle sequences. You are simply swept into the process of unravelling the nature of a country that is at once fragile and vibrant. It is not easy to picturise warriors clashing and pounding down hillsides without the accompanying gore and violence. The visuals are sharp, brutal and swift.

The director (Edward Zwick) does not dwell too much on the action per se but more on the sombre quality of a dwindling tribe of warriors led by a charismatic leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who is fighting a war for more than just political aims.

Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a bitter man. He drinks to forget his part in the trashing of native Indians and their life in the American Indian wars. Disillusioned and cynical, he now makes his living doing some sideshows only so he can drink to numb his soul. Besides, America is in a state of turmoil — of change and he wants nothing more than to be left alone in his personal grief.

But that is not to be for long — as he is offered a job that would take him out of America into the heartland of Japan — where progress and development is being sought by the emperor and he wants Nathan to do the only thing he is qualified for — that of training the fledgling, tentative army in Japan. With its first task to encounter and capture the last of the rebels, the Samurais. Who fight to preserve their way of life, the culture and the country from being overrun by the Emperor's haste in replacing the old life with the modern?

Algren takes it up figuring that this would not only pay him well but also get him out of a country he now hates. But once on the shores of Japan he finds it is not easy. The men are new and they have no clue about army tactics. Then there is the cunning Japanese capitalist, Omura (Masato Harada), who is perpetually on his case to ensure that the renegade is doing his work and also that the capture is effected at the earliest.

Omura has the Emperor's undivided attention and is intent on telling him of the benefits of modernisation, especially the army. And the Emperor is caught between the traditional ways of the Samurais and the new techniques of fighting. And is therefore keen that Algren trains the men in the new methods.

Impatient and anxious to capture the rebels, Algren, much against his judgment that the men are not ready, leads them for an assault goaded on by Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) who Algren dislikes intensely.

Unprepared for the ferocity and cunning of the ancient warriors, they are overtaken and Algren is captured — a prisoner they spare to learn more about the `new enemy.'

At the pristine village of the rebels, Algren learns to live. As a prisoner of war he is well taken care of by Katsumoto. And his pretty, Taka, whose husband Algren has killed previously. With that angle thrown in, the stage is set for a bit of romance, which is never really articulated, but lingers on like a faint fragrance. Algren bonds with the place, its people, their customs and their techniques of fighting. Somewhere the `white' stranger goes away and in place is a friend who is willing to fight along with them for their cause.

The film takes a look at the delicate balance between a dying culture and the fledgling one. The details lie in the events that lead up to the last battle of resistance that is tragic yet inspiring. And in a large measure it is because of Ken Watanabe, whose performance displays beautifully the struggle between his honour and his king without a thought for death.

Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. Terrific looking, whether he holds a sword or a flower. In some ways his non-smiling demeanour actually works.

There is opulence about the film much in the genre of "Braveheart" and "Dances With Wolves" that grows insidiously on the audience. Even as the fight goes on fiercely, the background score (Han Zimmer) moves on like a cascade bringing the deep bonds of friendship and honour to the fore — you forgive the cathartic climax, considering the spectacle and some stirring moments.


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