Cruise stars as Captain Nathan Algren, a boozy, down-and-out former Civil War hero who receives a chance to again fight something other than his inner demons when he's recruited to train Japan's new, modernized fighting force--the first step in the Japanese Emperor's overall effort to bring the stubbornly traditional country in line with the major Western powers. There's just one obstacle--a renegade lord named Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) who, with the help of a potent band of samurai, is fighting to stave off changes that he believes will destroy Japan's soul, making the samurai and their ancient warrior's code--Bushido--extinct.
Indeed, Algren's first exposure to the samurai bears out the efficacy of their code--armed only with swords and arrows, Katsumoto's men demolish a larger contingent of rifle-bearing Imperial forces, taking Algren prisoner. The relationship that develops between Katsumoto and Algren, however, is more collegial than adversarial. In Algren, Katsumoto sees the unvarnished soul of a born samurai, while in Katsumoto, Algren rediscovers his own long-lost sense of honor and integrity. It is a bittersweet détente, of course, that all but guarantees an eventual confrontation with an increasingly well-armed (by America) and well-trained (by Americans) Imperial fighting force.
Epic tales of restless westerners seduced by the exotic ways of far-off lands and cultures have long been a staple of both literature and cinema. "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dances With Wolves" won Oscars for their skilled indulgence of the theme, so it comes as no surprise that "The Last Samurai" should borrow liberally from both, adding finishing touches culled from the likes of Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" and the classic television miniseries "Shogun." Not that "borrowing" as such is anything unique in this well-worn genre, but Zwick's mélange is so glaringly obvious that it eventually becomes a distraction.
Thanks to skilled collaborators like cinematographer John Toll and a superior cast of actors--Cruise and, particularly, Watanabe are excellent--the film does manage to sustain an impressive overall feel, though it's a painfully familiar feel. With entire scenes, dialogue exchanges and music cues lifted from other movies, even a first viewing of "The Last Samurai" can seem like a repeat viewing of another film. It's generally more interested in paying homage to its inspirations than formulating original aspirations--frustratingly spirited yet soulless; easy to admire yet difficult to love.
That being said, "The Last Samurai" is certainly Zwick's most accomplished film as a director, dwelling on many of the same cautionary themes of American militarism that have permeated his previous pictures ("Glory," "Legends of the Fall," "The Siege" and "Courage Under Fire") but finding a means to a more elegant narrative integration. It's obviously no great stretch to point out the historic tendency of the United States to create its own monsters, though doing so without undermining the more immediate story is a considerable consolation. Starring Tom Cruise, Billy Connolly, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn, Shin Koyamada, Timothy Spall and Shichinosuke Nakamura. Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. Produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Scott Kroopf, Tom Engelman, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. A Warner Bros. release. Period drama. Rated R for strong violence and battle sequences. Running time: 144 min