The Last Samurai HD DVD

The Last Samurai is a movie that succeeds more than I expected it to in spite of Tom Cruise giving one of the worst performances of all time by an actor of his stature (and I’m not referring to his diminutive height here). I didn't see Samurai in the theater because I was repelled by its marriage of subject matter and star. And no, I'm not a Tom Cruise hater at all. I just had a hard time imagining him in a Samurai picture of any kind. And even my lowered expectations didn't prepare me for how laughably unconvincing Cruise is here as the adrift Civil War hero Nathan Algren. Cruise's performance is all the more frustrating because the man can be nothing short of brilliant when he wants to be (see Born on the Fourth of July, Magnolia and even Interview with the Vampire for proof positive).

Beyond Cruise, Samurai succeeds in being watchable on a number of fronts. Edward Zwick is a fine filmmaker. I've not only liked a number of his films such as Glory, The Siege and Courage Under Fire, I'm not afraid to admit that I love the soap operatic Legends of the Fall, probably more than it deserves (is Julia Ormond still in show business?). In addition to Zwick's solid direction and a story that's more compelling than I'd suspected, the sheer beauty of the locations, photography and all-around production are fantastic and Ken Watanabe is the anti-Cruise. This actor and the character he plays have a serene power and resonance that a few cheesily written lines can't undermine. Overall, Samurai was a pleasant surprise for me.

Samurai was the first HD DVD I watched, and did it ever put HD DVD on good footing with me right off the bat. The image quality is amazingly deep, highly resolved and incredibly textured. You don't need to A/B with the DVD to see that this HD DVD is simply on another plane. The gorgeous scenery was captured on film by the great John Toll, and this HD DVD transfer is simply breathtaking to watch from the richly detailed scenes in the village to the open landscapes in the final battle sequences. It's as rock solid and dimensional as any HD video I've yet seen, but also the most natural and sumptuous and strikingly devoid of artifacts of any kind. I'll be using clips from this disc as reference material for a long time.

The imagery here is the type that might produce divided opinions. Some might prefer the sharper images of something like Phantom of the Opera, which appears to have been shot entirely indoors on stages and therefore will inevitably be sharper looking. I think Phantom looks more like video than film, and find the image of Samurai more satisfying and film-like. Some equate the very term film-like with softer imagery, but I'd prefer to think of it as more artistically natural looking. And no, when you're on location making every single scene as razor sharp as possible isn't the ultimate priority!

The sound here is scarcely less terrific than the image quality, with active and effectively immersive surrounds, deep bass and a wonderful recording of a wonderful score by Hans Zimmer. This soundtrack excels in all tings bombastic and subtle, and is essentially an excellent example of craft all the way around.

Like so many others, this HD DVD is loaded with all the special features of the two-disc DVD edition. While I did find this movie mild surprise, I can't say it inspired me to watch the extras so you're on your own there (Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey?!). In addition to a commentary with Zwick, there are deleted scenes, a director's video journal, a trailer and several featurettes.

Video reviewed on Marantz VP-11S1 1080p DLP projector, 80" wide Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek 130 screen, and Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player via HDMI. Audio sent via SPDIF to Theta Casablanca III pre/pro with Six-Shooter, Theta Citadel and Dreadnaught power amps, and Vandersteen loudspeakers.