I don't know what I wanted from a movie called The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise. Maybe I just wanted it not to exist. But it does. It exists and exists and exists. Director Edward Zwick has made no secret of his desire to pay homage to Japanese cinematic master Akira Kurosawa, but The Last Samurai is transparently a Western epic, no matter how badly it may wish to be more.
Judged on its own merits, The Last Samurai also falls short, blunting its comic-book action effectiveness--on which level the film works best--with dramatic bloat and poorly developed romance. First and foremost the film is a star vehicle for Cruise, who plays 19th-century ex-Cavalry-man Capt. Nathan Algren. This false idol, reduced to a perpetual alcoholic binge peppered with sideshow appearances on behalf of Winchester rifles, ships off to Japan at the behest of a political opportunist named Omura (Masato Harada). Omura hires Algren, at great expense, to train Japanese troops to quell a rebellion led by fearsome samurai General Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). When the campaign goes horribly wrong, Algren finds himself Katsumoto's captive.
Already bitter and cynical from his reluctant participation in the massacre of native american women and children, Algren suffers wounds and indignities in the home of the woman he widowed in battle. Katsumoto engages Algren in regular "know your enemy" chats, while Algren detoxes and ingratiates himself with the dead warrior's family. Before you can say Dickie Roberts--Former Child Star, Algren is an unlikely part of the family, speaking fluent Japanese (he's a linguist, you know), wooing the widow, and playing Dad with the kids. If you can believe that, story man John Logan reasons, you can believe that Algren learns to love his enemy and gains enough trust to fight alongside them in battle with nary a whiff of resentment.
Though Logan shares screenplay credit with Zwick and regular Zwick collaborator Marshall Herskovitz, I blame Logan, the unaccountably successful screenwriter whose credits include Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis, The Time Machine, and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. It seems obvious that the merits of Logan's successful projects are owed to the filmmakers who rewrite him (like Oliver Stone on Any Given Sunday) than Logan's own dubious talents, and here Zwick fails to rewrite him into credibility or depth.
As for Cruise, his movie-star performance anchors the film for better and worse. Though the film poetically insists Algren is a noble tiger, Zwick and his star can't resist upsetting their bleary tone with goofy flourishes, like an awkward kung fu display meant to poke fun at Algren's last vestiges of vanity. But if this is the thing--a Dances With Samurais--who better than Cruise to lend professional aplomb, from his starry smile to his thorough physicality?
Less fact than fable, The Last Samurai is well-intentioned and musters the requisite Japanese-scroll vistas and check-out-all-the-soldiers battle scenes one would expect of an Oscar-bait epic shot by two-time Oscar winner John Toll (Braveheart and Legends of the Fall, natch). The director overworks the slo-mo, allows clunky epigrams, and generally betrays that he lacks Kurosawa's sharp and sophisticated regard for human behavior; instead, Zwick becomes too wrapped up in exoticism to see the Japanese as living, breathing individuals. If this blustery movie about "a forgotten word: honor" has its heart in the right place, it too fully embraces the samurai swordfighting tip "No mind."