As it is, it won't be hard to forget The Last Samurai in toto. For 144 endless minutes, director Edward Zwick reduces to big-budget American schlock the ancient warrior codes and thrilling battle sequences that Akira Kurosawa and other Japanese filmmakers brought so vividly to the screen in dozens of great swordplay classics, from Seven Samurai to Ran. This is a Tom Cruise vehicle, pure and simple. That means it's the biggest chunk of guilty-white-boy wish-fulfillment since Kevin Costner got down with the Sioux in Dances With Wolves.
The parallels are all but plagiaristic. Like Costner's hero, Cruise's Captain Nathan Algren is a bitter, burned-out Civil War vet addled by the official genocide of Native Americans. And he, too, is redeemed by an ancient culture, deemed savage by his old Army mates, that actually contains all the honor and serenity he couldn't find back home.
No one else matters. Not fierce, end-of-an-era shogun Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who, after sparing Algren's life, becomes the sour, boozy captain's spiritual guide, his new comrade in arms and his salvation. Not the nasty American bluecoats (led by Tony Goldwyn) who have dragged Algren to Japan in the first place to train a nineteenth-century emperor's incompetent army in the art of modern, rifle-based warfare. Not even Emperor Mutsuhito (Shichinosuke Nakamura), who reigned from 1867 to 1912, matters much. Here, he's portrayed as a baffled child caught between the old ways of feudal Japan and the new lure of Occidental trade and culture, without a clue about how to proceed. The first modern step, his svengalis insist, is to banish the samurai, who have been at it for ten centuries. On this scrap of historical plot, a bloodbath is staged.
But it's the dashing American captain who really matters, and that can make your skin crawl with embarrassment. Blame cowriters John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick for the misplaced ethnocentricity of the thing. Blame Hollywood arrogance for a longstanding tradition of same.
On the other hand, the battle scenes are suitably operatic and savage -- artery-spurting festivals of decapitation and impalement to please the sword freaks in the house -- think Braveheart by way of Gangs of New York. John Toll's cinematography is beautifully atmospheric. The acting -- even Cruise's -- is more than passable. And we get the full dose of recycled samurai wisdom -- a man's destiny is predetermined, the sword becomes his soul, honor becalms the spirit. But despite Zwick 's previous battlefield forays -- his thoughtful epic about black Civil War infantrymen, Glory, and his less successful visit to Kuwait and Iraq, Courage Under Fire -- he still doesn't get it. Stubborn Hollywood phoniness imbues almost all of The Last Samurai. It takes a heroic white soldier from the American heartland to remind the waffling Japanese emperor of his own heritage. And inevitably, Algren also wins the heart of the movie's Japanese porcelain doll (the solo-monikered Koyuki). Talk about Gaijin fantasy. No more Yankee treachery for this guy: He's stone expat now and loving every minute in the mysterious Orient. The last samurai? Let's hope so.