I was biased from the get go on this movie, totally biased. Tom Cruise playing a hero again, and a movie where the Americans go and teach the Japanese how to fight. I just saw a big epic with Cruise-isms all over it and another movie where anything about the historical aspect of the Japanese is lost in a parade of how great America is and how they saved Japan. I was wrong, incredibly so.
The first thing you realise about this movie is that Cruise is going somewhere he’s good at, a tormented, bleak and actually quite dark character. For me, these are his best roles. Not the smiling, charming character that’s made him so famous, but the kind of character we’ve seen him play only a few times, and each time he’s brought something unique and truly superb to the screen. At that point I perked up and paid a little more attention, this was actually going quite well.
After that the next major surprise is that this is not an all American movie, it talks of the massacre of Custer, but also of the massacre he inflicted on so many innocent Indians. No, this does not treat history with an all American paintbrush. At this point I had hope for a good movie, then the unthinkable happened.
The movie turns to the Japanese, and looks into their traditional way of life with reverence, intellect and a surprisingly deep understanding. It turns the story around and takes the American deep into the heart of the Japanese Samurai and shows his slow understanding of their customs, traditions and way of life. This treats the Japanese with so much respect you wouldn’t think it was a Hollywood movie at all. It was at this point I was noticed leaning forward in my seat at key moments of the movie, keen on not missing a second. I was enthralled.
During the movie Cruise looses his big name status and becomes an interesting and deeply engaging actor here, only bettered by the intensity of the amazing Ken Watanabe. I’d never seen this actor before, or rather I’d never singled out his presence in a movie, but here he positively steals every scene he enters into, giving the complete feeling of a real Samurai set on a single course and almost welcoming the fate the Emporer has dealt him. He’s deliberate, controlled but there’s so much warmth in his performance it’s wonderful to watch. Yet that’s not to put down the performance of Cruise, he shares the screen wonderfully and shares many of the amazing qualities of Watanabe.
The visuals are stunning, beautifully lit, visualised and filmed and the respect for the Japanese and their culture just pours onto the screen from the locations, sets and the smallest of details. The action is slow and measured with larger set pieces orchestrated so beautifully and never distracting from the morality of the tale. At all times it seems that the core of the movie, the Bushido, the way of the Samurai, is kept at the forefront of every scene and the moviemakers have crafted the movie so carefully and precisely, as the Samurai would craft their blades.
Edward Zwick proves here that he is one of the best Directors in Hollywood. He not only captures a script on film, but he delves into it and understands the story, its surroundings and history and brings it to life in the most epic of ways. He seems to totally drop the modern Hollywood movie production style and really steeps himself in the lore of the story and brings the production to the story, rather than making the story match the production.
This movie really has seemed to have been developed with total respect for the history of the Japanese Samurai, and has been crafted together with a real love for movies and the story itself. I can’t praise the movie enough, not only is it a wonderfully engaging and immersive tale, but it also carries with it many morales both of the traditional Japanese way of life, and the twisted ways of modern man. It carries with it exceptional performances and amazingly dramatic scenes which are beautifully captured on film throughout the movie. There really isn’t a dull, wrong or even Hollywood moment in the movie.
The DVD extras are extensive. On the first disc there’s a very interesting commentary by the Director Edward Zwick, which provides some great insight into the making of the movie, smaller scenes and some of the actors, as well as getting across his enthusiasm for the great Japanese warriors and their history.
The second disc gives us two deleted scenes, both with commentary by Zwick, and one with a how did we do it section, both interesting to see and understand why they weren’t included. However, the interesting thing here is not to judge the extras on the content of any one, all the extras ad up to provide a hugely insightful exploration of the movie, actors, and Japanese history. The ideas and comments on one of the extras will come through again and again, referenced throughout bringing together a much larger experience of the movie.
Also on the second disc are a number of features examining the costumes, sets, Japanese history, Samurai and Bushido, the actors including Cruise’s training to become a convincing Samurai swordsman, and an interesting discussion between Cruise and Zwick, slightly indulgent at times, but very interesting.
The movies is wonderful and the extras are a hugely satisfying addition to the film itself. This is definitely a must watch, and a must watch again.