Tom Cruise has a Zen moment in The Last Samurai, and the reason I know that is because, after getting the short end of the stick in several bouts with a Japanese kendo master, his character suddenly develops this ah-hah expression on his face, as if the laxative he took an hour before has finally kicked in. An impressive actor when cast properly, Cruise is out of his depth as a deeply disturbed Civil War veteran who finds a reason to live and a reason to die in Japan's bloody transition from feudalism to modernism. Kevin Costner pulled off a similar role in Dances With Wolves, and Russell Crowe could have done it while juggling eggs with his toes. But Cruise, despite the continual adding on of years, is still the cock-of-the-walk type. Everything's on the surface -- the silken hair, the blinding teeth. You could whack him with that stick all day long and he'd still be ready for his close-up.
The Last Samurai is an Eastern Western, the samurai standing in for our own "noble savages." And it's revisionist in the same way that Dances With Wolves was, by which I mean there are lots of subtitles. Captured by the samurai he's supposed to be helping the imperial government to destroy, Cruise's Capt. Algren becomes seduced by their warrior code -- their honesty, courage, compassion, sincerity and several other words that really should be capitalized. And that's the movie, pretty much. Director Edward Zwick, who complicated the notion of glory in Glory and all but eliminated the notion of courage in Courage Under Fire, has decided to play it straight this time, which means we're left cheering for one of the most fearsome suicide cults in the history of warfare. A note to Osama bin Laden, wherever you are: Run, don't walk, to the theater. And buy some Skittles.
You'll need them because, at two hours and 20 minutes, The Last Samurai is a bit of a slog. It's best in the early going, when Algren's still a reprobate, and when Billy Connolly is still around as Algren's looking-out-for-number-one assistant. And there are some nice scenes in the remote village that the samurai call home, many of them courtesy of Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto, the samurai leader, who'd just as soon caress a cherry blossom as behead an opponent. Or so he says. As powerful in repose as he is in action, Watanabe gives the kind of internalized performance that Cruise seems incapable of giving. Nevertheless, Katsumoto's fate is sealed, it being the last samurai's duty to go down in a blaze of glory. Alas, the movie's climactic battle has the blaze, but not the glory. Zwick, in borrowing freely from Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, has incurred a debt he can never hope to repay.