‘The Last Samurai’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘The Last Samurai’ (2003) is an epic drama film that takes place in a unique period of Japan’s history and highlights the conflict between modernization and tradition, between cultures, and also between different styles of warfare. However, it is not just the conflicts that are highlighted in this film but also the cooperation and the understanding that can happen as well in certain aspects such as between cultures. While this film is not specifically based on a true story, it is based on a number of true events that took place in the latter half of the 19th century for Japan and highlights the role of Western influence in Japan during the period of the Meiji Restoration or Reforms.

The main character, Nathan Algren (played brilliantly by Tom Cruise) is a Captain in the United States Army of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Nathan is a veteran of the American – Indian Wars and perhaps the Civil War as well. He is a bitter man who is suffering from trauma related to the atrocities committed against the Indian tribes during these brutal battles. When the film starts, we can see that Nathan is an alcoholic who is regretful over the orders that he had to follow and what happened to innocent Indian women and children whose lives were disregarded by his commanding officers.

However, for lack of purpose or money, or perhaps both, Nathan is recruited by his former commanding officer, Colonel Bagley, whom Nathan still resents for his role in the Indian massacres, to help train Japanese soldiers in the Western way of combat to put down the Samurai rebellion, which is ongoing in Japan. Algren is dealt a bad hand as he has to train peasants and not actual soldiers who are firing guns for the first time and would be better suited to the farms than to the battlefield.

In addition to that, he is expected to lead them soon into battle against the Samurai for which they do not have enough time to prepare. One of themes of this film is how good men are often corrupted by following misguided orders by their superiors and often end up harmed, captured, or killed for the negligence or ignorance of those with a higher rank. Nathan is a good soldier, but he cannot train peasants into soldiers in the time that is given to him especially when he is not familiar with the ways of the Samurai and how lethal they can be compared to his peasant conscripts.

In the battle between his soldiers and the Samurai, the Samurai end up killing most of them through surprise attacks and then an ambush in a refusal to fight the way of the ‘modern’ army that Nathan has assembled. One of Nathan’s fellow American army colleagues is killed in the battle while most of his army is decimated. Undeterred and with nothing to live for, Nathan fights the Samurai ferociously and is able to hold his own. Instead of killing him, the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, decides to capture Nathan instead and hold him as their prisoner. Unbeknownst to Nathan, Katsumoto sees something in Nathan and believes that he is a good warrior, who although tries to kill the Samurai, may be one of them due to his capacity to fight to the last breath.

At first, Nathan is not treated kindly by the Samurai given that he is a former enemy and that he also killed the husband of Katsumoto’s sister who resents Ethan’s presence in their village. Nathan also has his preconceptions and stereotypes regarding the Samurai and their culture. Over time though, Nathan starts to acclimate to his new life as a prisoner. He embraces the Japanese language and culture as well as earns the respect of the other Samurai by learning swordsmanship as well as how to train with others.

He also finds he has an affection for Katsumoto’s sister and ends up befriending her son as well. While it is not easy, he gains an appreciation for the Samurai and their way of life. He even begins to resent the modernity and the loss of the tradition that is being imposed on them by the imperial Japanese government. In this way, ‘The Last Samurai’ does an excellent job what it means to ‘go native.’

When you live in another country for long enough, you start to really embrace certain aspects of the culture and also if you take a liking to the language, you may realize you may want to stay there now that you’re acclimated rather than return to a home culture or country whose flaws become so visible to see when you were blind before to them. This movie does a great job of showing ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and how powerful it can be over time especially if you have a romantic interest in a woman or a man after a long enough period of time.

Algren is also no longer haunted by the nightmares of what he experienced during the Indian wars and has also forgone alcohol as he has found other ways to sustain himself while living with the Samurai. Perhaps most importantly, he develops a friendship with the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, who explains to Nathan their worldview and while preserving their 1000-year heritage is so important to them all. Nathan agrees with them and starts to see how important the ways of the Samurai are to Japanese culture and customs themselves.

The biggest turning point in the film is when Nathan begins to fight alongside the Samurai against attacks by both Ninjas, which one of the coolest scenes I have ever watched still. It is an amazing scene when you have Samurai battling with Ninjas and it is a very powerful point in the movie to show Nathan help save Katsumoto’s life. The Samurai are so dedicated to their way of life that they will die or commit ‘seppuku’ (suicide) to preserve their honor.

Without giving away the rest of the film, we can see that the Japanese emperor is being betrayed by big business interests and Western nations in the rapid attempt to modernize. While Japan was right in that it needed to catch up in areas of commerce and warfare, it is also important to remember the ways of the Samurai and to remember their customs as well. It is not right to destroy an important part of their culture and erase it from the history books.

That is what the Samurai leader, Katsumoto, and also Nathan wanted to preserve even if they knew that they were fighting a losing battle. A culture’s customs must be remembered, and its history remembered by all even if the country is to go in a new direction. ‘The Last Samurai’ makes it clear that even if there are no more Samurai, their memory must be retained in the national consciousness and it is important for Japan to not be belittled or bullied around by other powers. Receiving western advice, arms, and goods was a paramount need at that time but not at the sake of destroying a part of Japan that made it a special nation to begin with.

‘The Last Samurai’ is a powerful film because it reminds us all how customs and traditions form the backbone of a country’s culture and its’ history. While nations shift and change, the traditions and customs should never be forgotten by its people. That is the main message of the film and why the Samurai fought and died to preserve their place in Japanese society rather than be changed into something they are not. Becoming ‘Western’ because they had to be was an insult to them and something, they were against in an effort to remain as ‘Samurai’ in whatever capacity they could in order to serve the emperor.

It is a powerful film and also shows the redemption of Nathan Algren who went from a drunken soldier without purpose to a powerful Samurai commander who was able to integrate himself as best as he could into a foreign culture and even earn the love of a woman whose husband’s life he had ended. ‘The Last Samurai’ has many themes to it and each one of them are powerful. Remembering traditions, seeking vengeance, earning one’s redemption are all themes to the film and make it stand out still today as one of the best films of the 2000’s and maybe of this young century still. I hope you will check it out soon and please always remember the Samurai.

‘Collateral’ – Film Review and Analysis

It’s not often the case that a Hollywood film can go beyond its’ genre to relay a deeper message about the human condition and why people are the way they are. ‘Collateral’ (2004) is one of those movies that is able to achieve just that by making the audience member such as myself care about the characters as well as appreciate the deeper meanings beyond the dialogue and the setting.

While there are numerous crime thriller films out there, ‘Collateral’ is able to go above and beyond the clichés and be original in its’ own right. Part of this is due to the fact that Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx give outstanding performances for their respective characters along with the rest of the credit that should be given to director Michael Mann who relishes being a director for crime noir dramas that are set in Los Angeles. While ‘Collateral’ was not an Oscar award winning film unfortunately, its’ characters, the setting, the action sequences, the directing, and the overall message that the plot sends to the audience make it a unique and reputable movie that deserves a viewing or two.

Without going into too much detail, the plot of ‘Collateral’ stars two men who come from very different circumstances and live very different lives. However, the Cosmos align to have them meet for the first time at night in Los Angeles. “Vincent” played by Tom Cruise, has just arrived in Los Angeles from the airport and is looking for someone to take him around the city. What better way to see L.A. than to do so by taxi so Vincent goes to the nearest taxi stand to seek one out for a ride. That’s where the plot of the film begins as Max, played by Jamie Foxx, accepts Vincent as a new passenger after ignoring his presence initially. Vincent, dressed in a gray suit with gray hair could be just like any other businessman in Los Angeles but he’s not what he appears to be. Max starts to realize this as the night goes on but not until after he drops off Vincent at his first but not his last destination.

Vincent is more than just the new guy in town here for business. He’s a contract killer and a hitman who is in Los Angeles for one night only in order to carry out a series of hits. After bearing witness to the first of Vincent’s murders, Max is forced into being Vincent’s chauffeur for the rest of the night as he has four more contract hits to carry out for his boss, “Felix”, played brilliant by actor Javier Bardem. Vincent’s goal for the night is to carry out the rest of the contract hits successfully and then get a flight out of Los Angeles as the sun rises after his boss pays him handsomely for his ‘work’. Max’s goal for the rest of the night is to get out of this situation alive without getting killed by Vincent or being seen by the police as an accomplice of Vincent who is dragging him along as he commit these vicious murders in cold blood.

Mixed up in all of this madness is “Annie”, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, who is a prosecutor in the U.S. Justice Department who works out of their office in Los Angeles. She ends up being the first passenger of the evening in Max’s cab before the fates intertwine and Vincent comes along to change Max’s life forever. The only good part of Max’s night is when he meets Annie and they hit it off enough to the point where he is able to get her phone number but it is uncertain whether or not he will have the confidence to call her and make plans.

Unfortunately, Vincent, the contract killer, has Annie in his sights as one of his five targets setting off a series of events that put Max and Vincent on a tense collision course. On top of all of this, you have members of both the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department noticing what Vincent and Max have been up to which causes more violence and bloodshed to occur. “LAPD Detective Ray Fanning and FBI Investigator Frank Pedrosa” (played by Mark Ruffalo, and played by Bruce McGill) are the ones leading the investigation into these random but coordinated killings popping up all over Los Angeles in the dead of night orchestrated by Vincent with Max as his unwilling accomplice.

There’s no character in this film that isn’t in danger or who may come into harms way and that is partly what makes the title of the film fitting as called ‘Collateral’ because everybody in this movie feels the damage caused by Vincent in some way. Max has feelings for Annie so he wants to do the most he can to protect her before she become apart of the ‘collateral’ damage that is being inflicted by Vincent.

Michael Mann, the director of ‘Heat’ (1995) previously and of this film ‘Collateral’, does an excellent job of making the setting of Los Angeles feel like its’ own character that sets the tone for the movie as well as provide an analogy for what the characters of Max and Vincent are like. Los Angeles is a sprawling urban city of more than four million people and has highways, tunnels, and bridges that loop and wind through the various neighborhoods that can only be connected by car.

For Max, Los Angeles is the only home he’s ever known but for Vincent, it’s a sprawling, disconnected mess of alienated people who don’t know or care about each other even if the collective Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of their city is more than most countries on the planet. Vincent regales Max about a story of someone who dies on the Los Angeles Metro one day and nobody else on the transit system notices for many hours, which proves his supposed point about the city’s culture of alienation. Similar to L.A., Max and Vincent are disconnected from other people in their own ways. Max is shy and reticent with new people he meets and doesn’t go after what he wants while Vincent is a sociopathic killer who doesn’t have much regard for people in general.

There’s one excellent scene in this film where Vincent and Max chide and prod each other as to why they are who they are. Vincent wants Max to call Annie, the girl whose number he got earlier in the evening, because “Life is short. One day it’s gone…” Max doesn’t reply regardless of what Vincent’s opinion is of his dating life. Later on in the scene, they both see a lone grey wolf walking through the streets of Los Angeles presumably searching for food or for some sort of purpose. In so many ways, this is symbolic of who Vincent and Max both are.

Vincent knows his purpose is to kill people because it’s what he ‘does for a living’ but this job alienates him from his humanity and causes him to be a lone wolf. Max is unsure of his purpose in life and wants desperately to be more than a simple taxi driver. He has dreams to start his own limo company one day but never takes the first step to making that dream come true and actually become a reality.

Even though they are two different men from very different circumstances, they are able to see what they should become if they weren’t so set in their ways. Max is a compassionate person who cares for others but is stuck without a purpose and isn’t able to take control of his life. Vincent is a sociopath who can’t relate to other human beings but knows what his one true purpose in life is and this allows him to feel some control over his existence, which he deems as being ‘meaningless’ in the long run.

Even with the fact that they detest each other, they begin to understand the flaws in their own character and how they could be different if they gave themselves a chance. Max could be more spontaneous and avoid having a repetitive life if he chose to be something more than a taxi driver. There’s no changing that Vincent is a cold-blooded killer but you start to see the circumstances that created his monstrous self. He never knew his mother, and his father was an alcoholic who beat him mercilessly and let young Vincent to grow up in foster homes. Max, nor the audience, can show much sympathy for Vincent’s plight but you start to realize that he is not just a simple-minded killing machine.

While life may be meaningless for Vincent, he still thinks that Max should live it to the fullest and ‘carpe diem’ before it’s too late for him. Max gets Vincent to ask himself why he is a sociopathic killer and gets him to reveal a little about his troubled family as well as to why he is a nihilist. In response, Vincent gets Max to ask why he never did anything to make the Limo Company to become a reality. He implores him to think deeply about making his dream come true because someday it may never come to pass if you don’t do anything to make it happen in the first place.

‘Collateral’ is a great crime thriller that is extremely well written, has great acting, and is directed and choreographed superbly by Michael Mann and his team. Beyond that, ‘Collateral’ is a film that makes you question certain things about life and the limits that we put on ourselves. The nihilism and disconnectedness of both Los Angeles and the main characters of Max and Vincent is both surreal and powerful. This is not your typical Hollywood drama and that’s a good thing. This movie is not a blockbuster and feels more like an independent film that came in way under budget.

‘Collateral’ is a gripping take on two men who are forced together by fate to go through a night together that will change them forever. I highly recommend this movie based on the excellent writing, acting, directing, and the strong storyline that keeps the viewer interested. Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise do an excellent job and have great chemistry together, which is what makes ‘Collateral’ really shine, and have longevity as a unique film over a decade later. If you get the chance sometime, you should really see this movie.