Tom Cruise? Nope, sorry: Ken Watanabe.
That's not meant as a dig at Tom Cruise, who gets lambasted enough for, well, being Tom Cruise (fabulously wealthy, fabulously handsome, fabulously in the news all the bleeding time) yet doesn't get enough credit for shrewdly alternating surefire blockbusters with riskier fare (how many other A-list actors would have dared to tackle both Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky within the same career?). Yet considering the fact that this is being pushed as the film that might finally win Cruise his Oscar, it must be said that it's Watanabe who delivers the strongest performance, providing the picture with most of its heart and soul.
Director Edward Zwick has already demonstrated his capacity to handle expansive epics with Glory and Legends of the Fall, yet the picture that this most resembles is Dances With Wolves. Like that Native American saga, this one also centers on a US soldier who, despite being trained to fear non-white aggressors, eventually comes to respect, understand and assimilate himself into their culture. Yet that maxim about familiarity breeding contempt doesn't apply here: For all its recognizable trappings, this is an enormously entertaining film.
A former Civil War hero, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) has been reduced to a shell of his former self, turning to the bottle to erase shameful memories of his role in helping to eradicate entire Native American tribes. Yet despite his disheveled state, he's tapped to help train the Japanese emperor's armies in modern forms of combat. Sensing a changing world and wanting to be on its cutting edge, the boyish Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura), influenced by an opportunistic businessman (Masato Harada), agrees to modernize his country, in effect turning his back on those standard-bearers of the old way of life, the Samurai. Initially, Algren wages war against the Samurai, but after being captured and held in their village, he begins to appreciate their customs and understand the code of conduct by which they live. He's especially taken with their leader Katsumoto (Watanabe), an honorable warrior whose love for his Emperor is matched only by his disgust regarding his country's inevitable future.
Naturally, there's a love interest -- Katsumoto's demure sister (played by model-actress Koyuki) -- and these romantic interludes work, primarily because of the touching hesitancy between both parties. Just as naturally, there's also a hissable villain -- a vicious US officer (Tony Goldwyn) -- but his thinness as a character detracts from the richness of the other players and also lets us know that we can expect to see him dispatched in gory fashion. In fact, this movie's insistence on righting all wrongs is its greatest weakness, never more so than in a cringe-worthy epilogue in which characters learn important life lessons, justice is meted out like candy to trick-or-treaters, and Japan is made safe for future technological wonders such as Godzilla and Rodan sequels.
These squabbles aside, there's very little to dislike in The Last Samurai. Many notable Japanese vets add local color, reliable character actors like Timothy Spall and Billy Connolly contribute international flavor, and the cinematography by John Toll (Braveheart) is equally effective during both the bombastic and intimate interludes. The story by Gladiator scribe John Logan takes its time to ensure that Algren's character arc is believable, and Cruise breathes fire into a portrayal that's more artistic accomplishment than self-satisfied star turn.
Yet as much as the camera worships Cruise, it clearly enjoys focusing its lenses on Watanabe as well. It's hard to determine whether he's as consummate an actor as Toshiro Mifune, but were Akira Kurosawa still alive and making Samurai pictures, you can bet he'd find a role for this guy.