THE LAST SAMURAI — ** 1/2 — Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Koyuki, Timothy Spall, Tony Goldwyn, Masato Harada, Billy Connolly, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Shin Koyamada; in English and Japanese, with English subtitles; rated R (violence, gore, profanity, racial epithets, nude artwork); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for theater listings.
There are a lot of things that work — and work quite well — in "The Last Samurai," from the action scenes to the authentic period production and costume design to the exotic locales to the first-rate photography that captures it all so magnificently.
However, the one thing that really doesn't work here is a biggie — the film's star, Tom Cruise, who looks and sounds much too contemporary to be in a historical epic like this. He sticks out like a sore thumb, and as a result, there's always something that seems a little off.
The plot is also a bit too reminiscent of Kevin Costner's Oscar-winning Western epic "Dances With Wolves." In fact, it would be tempting to write this off as simply "Dances With Dragons," if it didn't have so many other things going for it.
Cruise, who also served as one of the film's producers, stars as Nathan Algren, an embittered, alcoholic U.S. Army veteran who finds himself in Japan during the samurai revolt of the 1870s. He's there to train the emperor's army against a rebellious samurai faction led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who was once one of the emperor's most trusted advisers.
Despite having an edge in terms of weapons and numbers, Algren's troops are routed in their first skirmish. And while most of his men are slaughtered, Nathan is captured by the samurai and taken back to their village. There, he is nursed back to health by Taka (Koyuki), Katsumoto's sister, as well as the wife of a warrior whom Algren killed during the battle.
Needless to say, she's uneasy about the arrangement. So is Algren, who uses the opportunity to learn more about his foes, even as he begins to sympathize with their cause and believe in their methods of achieving peace.
The plot is very familiar here, and despite his best efforts, Cruise seems very out of place. Yet Ed Zwick's direction is effective (much of that due to the spectacular visuals). And the supporting cast is terrific, especially Watanabe, whose character demands more screen time than he receives. Timothy Spall is also solid, as usual, as a British businessman and translator whose loyalties are torn.
"The Last Samurai" is rated R for graphic scenes of action violence (swordfighting, gunfire, arrow fire and some explosive mayhem), gore, scattered use of strong profanity and racial epithets and glimpses of nude artwork. Running time: 144 minutes.