Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a boozing officer disillusioned by the Civil War. Since Nathan is hired to go to Japan to modernize their army, wags have dubbed the film Dances With Samurai. And the comparison fits when the script lays on hokey narration and bombastic dialogue. “I won’t tell you how he died,” says Nathan to the young emperor. “I will tell you how he lived.” I’ll tell you how blather like that can kill a movie.
That it doesn’t is due to director Edward Zwick (Glory), who has a talent for staging thrilling action. Nathan has been captured by the samurai, the enemy he’s been paid to eradicate. But recuperating in their village, led by chief Katsumoto (the superb Ken Watanabe), Nathan not only learns their ancient traditions of honor, he adopts them. He also shares hot looks with Katsumoto’s widowed sister Taka (the lovely Koyuki) in a romantic subplot that is pure filler.
Cruise plays the role with fierce energy and swings a Bushido blade like a pro. When the script, by Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and John Logan, doesn’t sabotage the images, and the great cinematographer John Toll turns action into poetry, The Last Samurai emerges as a haunting silent movie.