A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie has extreme and graphic violence with many grisy wounds and a lot of blood. Many characters are killed, including some we have come to care about. Parents should especially be aware of the way that this movie portrays the traditional samurai notion of suicide as an honorable choice in the event of a defeat. The movie also includes some strong language, alcohol abuse, smoking, and sexual references. One of the movie's strengths is its respect for the Japanese culture and its portrayal of strong and respectful relationships between people of different races and cultures.
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What's the story?
THE LAST SAMURAI centers on Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a Civil War veteran irredeemably corrupted by wartime atrocities and devoid of honor. When he is offered a job to train Japanese soldiers in modern fighting techniques, he does not care whose side he will be on. He is still haunted by a raid that killed civilian Indians. Algren goes to work training soldiers in modern tactics so that they can defeat a samurai rebellion led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Against his best judgment, the troops are sent in against the samurai too soon. They are defeated, and Algren is captured. Algren learns that the samurai believe that they, not the troops Algren has been training, are doing what the emperor needs. He's impressed and ultimately moved by them. Algren -- or at least the man he once was -- has more in common with the samurais' life of "service, discipline, and compassion" than he has with any of his peers. The samurai have all the honor and self-respect that Algren left behind when he followed orders he despised. Algren is trained by the samurai in the ancient arts, which include not just fighting but living.
Is it any good?
The Last Samurai has some outstanding action scenes and memorable performances, but its greatest strength is its scope. Director/co-author Edward Zwick imbues every part of the screen with respect, even majesty. The epic reach of the movie is grounded in committed and thoughtful performances, especially Watanabe and Koyuki as Taka, his sister. Cruise delivers his usual performance, sincere and loaded with movie star charisma. His mastery of the samurai fighting techniques is impressive.
However, the movie's greatest weakness is that while we know that Algren's commanding officer is a bad guy, the emperor is a weak guy advised by a greedy guy, and Katsumoto is a good guy, we never understand the substance of the conflict well enough to take sides. One side may be corrupt, but it is grappling with the inevitable in engaging with modernity. The other side may have honor and dignity, but in embracing its own extinction it seems to have forgotten how to do anything but fight, no matter what the consequences to its community. And the last 20 minutes or so are disappointingly formulaic, undercutting the power of everything that went before.
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