Like Dances with Wolves, another film about a disaffected 19th-century American soldier going native, Edward Zwick’s tame The Last Samurai romanticizes an ancient culture as the pure and honorable adversary of the deviously amoral and bloodthirsty modern world epitomized by the United States and its allies. The film’s dichotomous narrative is designed to engender audience sympathy for the fierce, noble samurai who, in their civil struggle against the emperor’s nefarious Imperial court, represent the last vestiges of a supposedly more ethical era. The Americans are murderous boors, and the emperor’s right-hand man Omura (Masato Harada) is a soulless creep more interested in howitzer machine guns than cultural history. All the while, the film conveniently (and, one might say, deceptively) sidesteps commenting on the dubious militaristic legacy of the samurai on Japan’s modern history.
More problematic than the film’s political shortsightedness is its obviousness and simplistic didacticism. A damp “epic” adventure about the value of multiculturalism, the film traces the path of washed-up drunken soldier Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) to Japan to train the emperor’s peasant army for battle against the rebellious samurais led by the imposing Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). In battle, Algren is captured and brought back to the samurai enclave nestled deep within Japan’s lush green countryside of rolling hills and snow-capped mountains. There, he slowly learns to embrace the samurai way of life (discipline, perseverance, spirituality) and, in the process, purge himself of the painful memory of an Indian massacre in which his repugnant commanding officer Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) forced him to participate. Algren slowly falls in love with Katsumoto’s demure sister (Koyuji)—wife of a man Algren killed in battle—and, after a few nights of detox and a few strolls around the lovely village, discards his Western mentality for a life of Zen bliss.
Cruise convincingly brings Algren’s metaphysical resurrection to life, smoothly masking the character’s disarming fragility with defiant, devil-may-care courage. Still, the actor’s palpable vanity—playfully mocked by one samurai’s comment that Cruise is “still so ugly!”—periodically inhibits his performance. Cruise’s likeably confrontational scenes with Watanabe soon give way to mushy man-love declarations of solidarity, and thus there’s little surprise when Algren decides to take up arms with the samurais against his former comrades. There’s a crisp, sinewy rhythm to Zwick’s direction, and cinematographer-par-excellence John Toll ably captures the overpowering majesty of both the Japanese countryside and the regal samurai, such as when the fierce warriors, encased in spiked armor and ornate horned helmets, burst forth from the forest mist like rampaging specters on horseback. A spectacular battle between Katsumoto’s tribe and a band of fearsome swordsmen gives the film a momentary jolt of combative excitement, but, by and large, The Last Samurai is content to be a squishy, serious-minded lesson about embracing one’s heritage and cherishing the virtues of valor and respect. It could have used more edge.