Let me start this off by saying that a historical epic has to do more than have some great fight scenes to impress me. That is the reason why I HATED "300" (And when I say hated I mean H-A-T-E-D) That said, "The Last Samurai" is probably the greatest historical epic of all time. It has fight scenes arguably as good as "300", but unlike "300" it also has a brain, a heart and characters you actually give a crap about. It's a beautiful tale of loyalty and honor I never thought I would see out of this genre (Especially considering Tom Cruise is in it) but fortunately had.
Before I get into my review, readers should know that this film requires patience. Do not watch unless you intend on finishing it, because the first 20 minutes are VERY dull. However, from those 20 minutes onward, it is a masterpiece.
The acting in this movie was breathtakingly good. Tom Cruise, surprisingly, did a great job as Nathan Aldren, the former American army captain recruited by the Japanese to exterminate the Samurai. He showed a lot of emotion and energy with his role while keeping it realistic, a great performance. Koyuki did a great performance as well as the Japanese mother of 3 small children forced to care for Nathan, despite the fact he killed her husband. However, the best performance in the movie has got to go to Ken Watanabe (FYI, he was also in "Batman Begins" another great one) His performance showed plenty of emotion and power, and was part of what made this movie so emotional.
Of course, what's a fantastic historical epic without fantastic battle scenes? And these battle scenes are certainly fantastic. From choreography to just the right amount of slow mo, these fight scenes seem to get everything right. (The battle scene at the end is probably the best, which I suppose is fitting)
However, what sets "The Last Samurai" apart from a mindless, heartless idiotic blood bath like "300" is the character development, We actually care about the characters in this film. When Nathan Algren is captured by the Samurai, he must make a choice about whether to protect and embrace the culture he has grown into, or betray the samurai and bring about their extermination. Similarly, when Taka (Koyuki's character) is forced to care for Nathan, she is horrified. Nathan killed Taka's husband, a samurai, in a battle. However, the more time Nathan spends in the house and the closer she, and her children, get to Nathan. That said, "The Last Samurai" would be nothing if not for it's fantastic characters.
If you are a "300" fan, looking for a mindless, bloody, stupid and senseless war film, go check out "Beowulf". However, if you're looking for a historical epic with a heart, brain and muscle than you've hit jackpot with "The Last Samurai". Truly one of the best films of 2003.