Tom Cruise plays a Civil War captain who exorcizes his demons the Samurai way
You gotta love a movie in which Tom Cruise gets the tar beat out of him every 15 minutes. Well, you don’t have to, but it helps. It also helps that he refrains from flashing his trademark smirk throughout—a first, I believe. He also stays out of mouth-breathing mode, settling instead for a clench-jawed, furrowed-brow look.
You see, as Nathan Algren, he’s a Civil War veteran and ex-Cavalry captain, drunk with remorse (and whiskey) for his role in the massacre of a Native American village. So he schleps about 1876 San Francisco, whoring himself out as a Winchester rep, extolling the Indian-killing attributes of the rifle.
He’s not happy, though. Seems the only thing he’s good at is killing indigenous folk, so he allows himself to be recruited to ship over to Japan to take down the last of the samurai. The ancient line of warriors are rebelling against the westernization of their country, and the culturally cuckolded Emperor wants the resistance crushed.
Things work out in an unplanned manner, however, and Algren finds himself a POW in the samurai camp. Impressed with his warrior moxie, the Japanese let him live. Of course, being accommodating hosts, they win him over to the samurai way. Of course, then there are those pesky ninjas.
As entertainment goes, The Last Samurai is silly but compelling fun. The action sequences are exciting enough, and Cruise isn’t intolerable (despite being amusingly miscast). As the samurai leader who corrects Algren’s headspace as to the duties of the warrior code of respect and honor of even the enemy, Ken Watanabe brings a quiet dignity to the screen that refreshingly balances out Cruise’s Acting 101 technique. Cinematographer John Toll (Legends of the Fall) deftly applies the vistas of New Zealand to stand in for Japan and early in the film presents a virtual postcard of a long-lost San Francisco, heavy with breathless nostalgia.
The trouble is, the ending doesn’t maintain the message of the other two hours of film. The westernization of a tradition-bound society is bad, the message is pounded, but the movie then moves on (stop reading if you don’t like spoilers) to a happy ending, in which Cruise coerces the last of the samurai to engage in a suicide run against the Emperor’s army. All but he die in a blaze of blood-spurting Gatling-gun glory.
Now living up to the image of his mug on the poster as being "the last samurai," he returns to shack up with his mentor’s sister. I suppose it could be read as a metaphor for the bastardizing influence of the Yanks, but I seriously doubt that was the filmmakers’ intent.