Generally speaking, most well-regarded samurai movies are either sprawling epics like the Samurai trilogy or Kagemusha or veiled social commentary like Harakiri. But the vast majority of samurai movies are meant as pure, rousing entertainment. Three Outlaw Samurai certainly falls into this last category (though, as might be expected, few movies are confined to just one purpose, and the film has a healthy dose of rebellion and tradition to reflect upon).
The film's story is vaguely related to Seven Samurai's archetypal story of samurai committed to protecting the downtrodden, but the premise here is much more straightforward, with a clear villain in the evil magistrate and a specific conflict in his kidnapped daughter. The movie's action, too, is far more contained, both in running time (the movie is less than half as long as the earlier epic) and scope, as much of the fighting takes place between two individuals facing off.
The movie is a solid adventure flick, but beyond any basic appreciation of the action, it comes up a bit short. There's never any doubt of who is going to win the battle, and the magistrate is a boring and generally unthreatening character. The samurai at the center of the film are appealing and fun to watch, but their characters never seem especially original or memorable. I enjoyed Three Outlaw Samurai, but in (an unfair) comparison to a straight-ahead action masterpiece like Yojimbo, it fails to transcend the genre.