Furious action speaks louder than words in “The Last Samurai,” Edward Zwick’s handsome, intriguing if not wholly satisfying new period piece starring Tom Cruise as an American visitor to late 19th century Japan.
Cruise plays a Civil War hero, Capt. Nathan Algren, who is filled with self-loathing about his violent post-war adventures, including the massacre of an Indian village. In 1876, he seizes the opportunity for a fresh start as he relocates to train a Japanese army made up of conscripts.
Also taking the trip is Col. Benjamin Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), the racist commander Algren blames for the massacre. Zwick skillfully draws on the tension in their relationship, while emphasizing the visual spectacle of their arrival in Japan. Thanks to the excellent special-effects crew and cinematographer John Toll (who won an Oscar for Zwick’s “Legends of the Fall”), there’s a magical, auspicious quality to these scenes.
Following a ferocious battle in which he almost dies, Algren finds an unexpected soulmate in Katsumoto (the excellent Ken Watanabe, who easily dominates all his scenes). Katsumoto’s gentle sister, Taka (the single-named Koyuki), stitches up Algren’s wounds, apparently harboring no hard feelings toward the American even though he’s made her a widow.
But he senses that beneath her surface politeness is contempt, and he’s being treated “as a stray dog or an unwelcome guest.” Cruise’s performance relies heavily on this kind of introspection, which clarifies things for Western audiences and sometimes risks condescension.
Despite all the meaningful glances exchanged between the central characters (and an insistent score that pounds home every emotion), there’s not much sense of depth or mystery to this meeting of east and west. Algren is more notion than character, an unstoppable Superman, and in the end he seems protected from the genuine sacrifices made by the Japanese.
The historical starting point for the script was a samurai revolt that took place in 1876-77. The story, which inevitably covers some of the same territory as “Shogun,” boils down to a conflict between old and new, specifically samurai honor vs. guns and cannons, and there’s not much question about who’s going to come out on top.
Cruise and Zwick are both fans of Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai movies, and their attention to detail pays off in a series of deftly handled and creatively edited fight scenes. The picture somehow feels most authentic and alive when Watanabe and Cruise are taking on several warriors at once.
Still, if you felt that “Braveheart” went on too long and flirted with fetishising violence, you may have a similar reaction to “The Last Samurai.” Perhaps the movie’s greatest failing is its general lack of humor, which leads to a sense of self-importance (especially during a baffling instant replay of one fight) and leaves it open to unintended laughter.
Fortunately, it does have the wonderful London-based actor, Timothy Spall, who does for his comic-relief role what Peter Ustinov used to do for biblical epics. His scenes as Algren’s rumpled, fussy British interpreter, Simon Graham, are too brief, but you treasure each of them.
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com