As it is, it won't be hard to forget The Last Samurai. For 144 endless minutes, director Edward Zwick reduces to big-budget American schlock the ancient warrior codes and thrilling battle sequences that Akira Kurosawa and other Japanese filmmakers brought so vividly to the screen in dozens of great swordplay classics, from Seven Samurai to Ran. Of course, this is not Hollywood's first swing at westernized samurai epic -- The Magnificent Seven still looks pretty good, as does John Frankenheimer's late-career crime thriller, Ronin. But for all of Zwick's supposed regard for the Kurosawa canon (he's watched Seven Samurai "countless times") and the bend-over-backwards reverence he tries to show for Japanese culture, one glaring fact overwhelms all his best intentions. This is a Tom Cruise vehicle, pure and simple, and that means it's destined to be the biggest chunk of guilty-white-boy wish-fulfillment since Kevin Costner got down with the Sioux in Dances With Wolves. In fact, the parallels are all but plagiaristic. Like Costner's hero, Cruise's Captain Nathan Algren is a bitter, burned-out Civil War vet, addled by the official genocide against Native Americans. Like his cinematic predecessor, he too is redeemed by an ancient culture deemed "savage" by his old Army mates, but which actually contains all the honor and serenity he's found missing back home.
Given the demands of this dramatic centerpiece, nothing else and no one else matters. Not the fierce, end-of-an-era shogun called Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) who, after sparing Algren's life, becomes the sour, boozy captain's wise spiritual guide, his new comrade-in-arms, and his salvation. Not the nasty American bluecoats (led by Tony Goldwyn's vile, bloodthirsty Colonel Bagley) who drag him off to Japan in the first place, to train a 19th-century emperor's incompetent army in the art of modern, rifle-based warfare. Not even the Divine One himself counts for much. As portrayed here, Emperor Mutsuhito (Shichinosuke Nakamura), who reigned from 1867 to 1912, is a baffled child caught between the old ways of feudal Japan and the new lure of occidental trade and culture, without a clue about how to proceed. The first modern step, his Svengalis insist, is to banish the samurai, who've been at it for 10 centuries. Thus do we get a scrap of historical plot on which to stage a bloodbath. But forget that too. It's still the dashing American captain who really matters, and that can make your skin crawl with embarrassment. Blame cowriters John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz, and Zwick for the misplaced ethnocentricity of the thing; blame Hollywood arrogance for a long-standing tradition of same.
On the other hand, the battle scenes are suitably grandiose, operatic, and savage -- artery-spurting festivals of decapitation and impalement, which will please the sword freaks and unrepentant blood-lusters in the house. Think of Braveheart by way of Gangs of New York. Meanwhile, John Toll's cinematography (especially the mountain-camp sequences) is beautifully atmospheric. The acting -- even the Cruiser's -- is more than passable. And we get the full dose of recycled samurai wisdom: how a man's destiny is predetermined, how the sword becomes his soul, and how deep-seated honor calms the spirit. Fine. Everyone bow to the shade of Kurosawa -- and to the way of the samurai itself. But despite Zwick's several previous forays onto the battlefield (his thoughtful epic about black Civil War infantrymen, Glory, and his less successful visit to Kuwait and Iraq, Courage Under Fire), he still doesn't quite get it. Stubborn Hollywood phoniness imbues almost all of The Last Samurai, right down to Cruise in his fat red beetle-suit (batteries not included) and, more glaringly, the fact that it takes a heroic white soldier from the American heartland to remind the waffling Japanese emperor of his own heritage and, inevitably, to win the heart of the movie's Japanese porcelain doll (the solo-monikered Koyuki). Talk about gaijin fantasy. Before it's all over, our renovated and renewed Cap'n Algren has not only absorbed the ancient bushido spirit as his own; he's learned to eat with chopsticks and make small talk with the kids in their native tongue. No more Yankee treachery for this guy: He's stone expat now and loving every minute in the mysterious Orient. The last samurai? Let's hope so.