The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai (2004)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Featurettes, Interviews, Premiere Footage, Theatrical Trailer

Also part of Warner Home Video's initial batch of HD-DVD releases is Edward Zwick's epic movie "The Last Samurai." Big budget movies with great vistas, epic storylines and wonderful production designs, will of course always help sell new platforms, such as high definition video, simply because their grandeur and beauty is easily visible and potentially emphasized by the capabilities of these new formats. "The Last Samurai" is a great choice as it is not only a grand film, but also a very good one.

By the end on the 19th century Japan realizes that it had been living in a state of complete isolation while the rest of world developed and industrialized. Locked down in its own traditions and ancient culture, Japan has lost touch with the rest of the world on many levels and as a result the government decides to embrace Western cultures and abolish many of the old status symbols and practices. This change is so fundamental that it completely eradicates the current way the country is governed and removes Shoguns – the war lords – and their warrior caste the Samurai altogether.

To make the transition into industrialization and the modern world faster and more seamless, the Japanese government recruits – among others – weapon experts from overseas. And so former cavalry captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), who has long fallen from grace and turned into a drunkard, takes on the challenge and goes to Japan to demonstrate and train the Japanese army on the Winchester rifle. But it's easy money it seems and Algren could use a change of pace.

The change in the Japanese culture, creates a lot of bad blood among the people, of course, especially those directly affected by the change, and it is hardly surprising that the Samurai rebel against the plans and begin to violently oppose the government. One day, Algren is captured by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) the leader of the Samurai rebellion during a bloody battle. Instead of killing his opponent, Katsumoto decides to observe the American however, trying to learn more about his enemy, the way he works and the way he operates. Over time the two men develop a mutual respect for each other as they see that both of them simply follow their ideals and that these ideals may not be too far apart, actually.

As pointed out in the opening, with its sweeping images and grand story, "The Last Samurai" is a showcase film through and through, and one that is extremely well crafted, acted and delivers a good punch of excitement, drama and action.

Warner Home Video is now giving us the chance to see the film in its entire high definition glory in a transfer that is encoded in 1080p resolution – though the current HD-DVD players can play it back in 1080i format at best, leaving still some room for improvement for future player generations. As expected the image is simply breathtaking. It was extremely impressive on the DVD version already and here it goes a notch further. However, unlike "The Phantom Of The Opera," which is a very deliberately artistic film, here we see the benefits of high definition put to use in a furious spectacle. The wonderful wide-angle landscapes are brought to life with incredible detail here, giving the picture more visual depth and simply bringing out more details in distant objects. Textures of grass in the wind or the depth of the snow falling for example is much more intricate than it was before. However, the ultimate experience in showing its muscle comes in the movie's climactic battle. The textures of the cloth, and the armors is absolutely lifelike. Every wrinkle, nick and scratch is visible on the costumes and the props suddenly. Add to that the fact that even during these intense and fast action moments the image never blurs like it does on traditional DVD is giving the film added dynamic, I found.
The colors of the movie are vibrant and rich and mange to reproduce even the most subtle hues and shades. With deep black levels and a general contrast fall-off that seems to be a tad finer in delineation than on the DVD, one is simply mesmerized by the films grandeur. However, this sort of added detail also has its drawbacks and I found that certain special effects and digital matte paintings stood out a bit more than they did on the DVD version, but that may just be me being overly aware of it and virtually staring at the screen trying to overanalyze the picture.

This HD-DVD version of "The Last Samurai" contains a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus audio track in English and French as well as a Spanish Dolby Stereo track. As previously, evaluating the full capabilities of the audio tracks proves a bit problematic and we had to route the audio through the player's analog outputs. The result is a very good, transparent sound image but I am not sure how representative any discussion of it would be in terms of real audio imaging once full compatible equipment becomes available. Still ,the track is engaging and active, just as you would expect.

The release is coming with all the great bonus materials that were part of the DVD Special Edition. Encoded in the standard 480i format, the features look good but once again stress the difference between a high definition transfer and a standard presentation. While the player does an admirable job up-converting the material, it just isn't quite the same.

The extras include the commentary track by director Edward Zwick that is very informative and gives the viewer a much deeper understand and appreciating for the film. Zwick addresses many issues of the actual shoot of the film as well as his cast members.

There are large number of featurettes on the release, filled with interviews and behind the scenes footage. All of it is interesting and offers a wealth of information as well as insight into the process that goes into the making of a film on such a scale. Further we learn about the historic elements as well in featurettes that cover, for example, the weaponry of the period depicted and how these weapons were reproduced for the production. There really is a lot of material on this disc – after all, it filled an entire second disc in the DVD version – though it may appear a bit repetitive after a while.

Also included in the History Channel Documentary "History vs. Hollywood," that tries to separate fact from fiction in the film. It leans very heavily on footage from the movie so again, it may feel a bit repetitive. Still it does an respectable job in discussing the historic background of the film in a bit more detail and puts things in perspective.

Then there is footage form the Japanese Premiere of the movie and the film's theatrical trailer.

"The Last Samurai" is a great movie that takes you in with its sweeping visuals and its dynamic story. While it may have looked great on DVD ,wait until you see this high definition version. Looking more like a film than home video, this release is great entry to kick of the high definition format and will make you want to see more.