Directed by Edward Zwick, starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Koyuki, Hiroyuki Sanada, Timothy Spall, Tony Goldwyn and Billy Connolly.
The last time Tom Cruise played a stranger in a strange land the result was 'Far and Away' - a film whose services to accents had punters doubled up in either pain or laughter. "I'm Joseph Donnelly," he roared. "And this is my land!" To which a nation replied: "We're Irish and don't know anyone who speaks like you." This, however, is a much better film that will even have you overlooking Billy Connolly's onscreen blarney.
Boozed-up and bitter, American Civil War veteran Nathan Algren (Cruise) is seconded to a gun company as a sharp-shooting sideshow act when the Cavalry comes calling. Japan is emerging from self-imposed exile and forging trade links with the US, much to the displeasure of the Samurai and steely leader Katsumoto (Watanabe), who are rebelling to keep their way of life. Now the Japanese Emperor's advisors want Algren to train a conscript army to combat the insurrection. Knowing that location is secondary when all you're looking for is the end of the bottle, Algren agrees and is dispatched east with Sergeant comrade Zebulon Gant (Connolly).
The conscripts are a shambles, unable to adjust to Western fighting methods and terrified of the Samurai. Despite protestations that it's mass suicide, Algren and his charges are dispatched into Katsumoto's territory. The conscripts are massacred but Algren's life is spared because of his skill in combat and he is brought to Katsumoto's village. Billeted with the wife (Koyuki) and family of a samurai he killed, Algren spends the winter as part-prisoner and part-curiosity, Katsumoto eager to learn of his troubled past. And so begins the American's redemption.
Part-inspired by the true story of rebel warrior Saigo Takamori, Zwick co-wrote 'The Last Samurai' with 'Gladiator' scribe John Logan, and the same sense of honour and ultimate sacrifice run through both stories. 'Gladiator' is the better film, and some will say this blockbuster's title should be 'Dances With Samurai', but the performances of the Japanese cast, and in particular Watanabe, pull more at the emotions than most.
Zwick should've added another half-hour to further develop the relationship between Cruise's Algren and his co-star's Katsumoto because the village scenes resonate just as long as the closing battle. As the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy has proved, the 'progress' of leaner running times has done little to dull people's appetite for a long story, well-told, and Zwick paces his two-and-a-half hours very well.
Where he fails is the ending. A film, which to use the title of a book on Takamori, is about 'The Nobility of Failure', should not end quite so snugly. From his words to diary entries, throughout the film Cruise's character is burdened down by doom with an audience expecting it by the bucketful. And indeed there comes a moment when it seems that Zwick, like his hero, has bucked tradition and accepted a new way of thinking. It doesn't last and that's a letdown no amount of good acting, set pieces or box office can compensate for.