3 stars (out of 4)
A stunning spectacle of cultural violence and a loving tribute to the great Japanese samurai movies, Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai" is an adventure epic that triumphs over an initially preposterous premise: Tom Cruise as an American mercenary soldier in 19th-century Japan, fighting alongside a last rebellious band of samurai warriors.
The movie is an unabashed Cruise star vehicle and a sometime mangling of Japanese history. But it also has feeling, grace and spirit. It's Zwick's homage to a moviemaker and movies he obviously loves: the late Japanese film genius Akira Kurosawa and masterpieces like "Seven Samurai." And it's done with such visual beauty and thrilling action that, by the time of the film's climactic battle - the samurais' last stand against the imperial army - we're swept into its grand myth-making.
Cruise plays Capt. Nathan Algren, an embittered survivor of Custer's cavalry hired by the Japanese government in 1876 to train its ragtag but heavily armed conscripted armies. Their foes are the forces of General Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), samurais who refuse to lay down their arms.
Algren, a character Cruise initially plays with his usual brisk, fresh-guy cockiness, starts as a cynic instantly at odds with fellow mercenaries, pragmatists like arrogant Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) and their Japanese employer, businessman/minister Omura (Masato Harada). After being defeated and captured, in his first battle, by Katsumoto and his warriors, who gallantly spare Algren because of his unlikely one-man victory over top swordsmen, Algren finds his heart won over by the group's martial perfectionism and strict philosophical code of bushido. Soon, he's switched to Katsumoto's side, joining forces with fierce lieutenant Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada) and even the widow of his victim, Taka (Koyuki).
These samurai still fight with sword and bow and arrow; the neophyte army of the new government has rifles, cannons and bayonets. At least initially, brilliance and bushido win out over firepower - until at the end, Katsumoto and Algren enter that last battle facing not only vastly superior numerical forces, but deadly new Gatling guns. The movie grows on you. Zwick has often celebrated martial bravery and last stands, as in the Civil War epic "Glory" and the Persian Gulf-centered "Courage Under Fire." Here, he presents the conflict (in the country and within Algren) as a battle of tradition vs. commerce and the new politics. The traditions Zwick and co-writers John Logan ("Gladiator") and Marshall Herskovitz ("Dangerous Beauty") celebrate are as much the movie mastery of Kurosawa as those of old Japan.
And they celebrate them well enough to make this film's historical vagaries, in the end, less damaging. That last battle, swords against repeating rifles, may make no sense as a matter of tactics. (Why not just buy some rifles and cannons and learn how to shoot them?) But it moves us as a symbol of the sustaining beauties of tradition, analogous in its own way to pitting the old-fashioned action epic or Western against newfangled, digitized, "Matrix"-ized mayhem.
In the midst of all this, Cruise grows on you too. He starts out giving a somewhat forced performance; Algren's early drunk scenes lack boozy, sodden flair. But gradually, he takes over the screen, rises right into the movie's heroic dimension. He's helped immeasurably by his co-stars, by the humor and eccentricity of Billy Connolly (as a rough soldier) and Timothy Spall (as a photographer), and even more by the majestic bearing and force of Watanabe and Sanada. What "The Last Samurai" lacks, ultimately, is the sense of comic fire and danger, the roaring gusto, that were the specialties of Kurosawa and his great samurai star, tigerish Toshiro Mifune.
But the film stirs us anyway. "The Last Samurai" may fall short of its great model, "Seven Samurai" (almost all action movies do), but it's miles ahead of most of the gadget-ridden adventure epics around now. Watching it, you can see why Zwick and Cruise want to return to the past. In a way, the gallant last stand they yearn for is the one we see in our movies as well.
"The Last Samurai"
Directed by Edward Zwick; written by Zwick, John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz; photographed by John Toll; edited by Steven Rosenblum, Victor du Bois; production designed by Lilly Kilvert; music by Hans Zimmer; produced by Zwick, Herskovitz, Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Scott Kroopf, Tom Engelman. A Warner Brothers Pictures release; opens Friday, Dec. 5. Running time: 2:34. MPAA rating: R (violence).
Capt. Nathan Algren - Tom Cruise
Katsumoto - Ken Watanabe
Simon Graham - Timothy Spall
Zebulon Gant - Billy Connolly
Col. Bagley - Tony Goldwyn
Ujio - Hiroyuki Sanada
Omura - Masato Harada
Ambassador Swanbeck - Scott Wilson