In one of his sunnier moods, Jean-Luc Godard might have tacked onto The Last Samurai the subtitle une étrange aventure de Tom Cruise. We’ve seen sci-fi Tom in Minority Report, Venetian-masked Tom in Eyes Wide Shut, latex-face Tom in Mission: Impossible, even topknot Tom in Magnolia; but who would have imagined he’d turn up in East Asia in 1876, draped in a robe and miming a sword fight? In the role of Capt. Nathan Algren, a veteran of Custer’s 7th Cavalry, Cruise sails to Japan as a mercenary and at a certain moment finds himself alone in a rural house, where he decides to try out the clothes and military drill he’s been observing. To the credit of The Last Samurai, the ensuing romp recalls, just a little, the scene of teenage Tom in Risky Business playing air guitar in his skivvies. The Last Samurai knows itself to be une étrange aventure and is sometimes willing to be amused by it.
Mostly, though, The Last Samurai aims for, and achieves, epic sweep: the glory of tradition-bound warriors hurling themselves against the modern world, the grandeur of Hollywood offering two points of view on everything. Do you believe the West corrupted the rest of the world, devastating it with commercialism and machines of war? Then The Last Samurai is for you. It celebrates the medieval virtues of Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who starts out as the captor of Captain Algren but gradually becomes his leader and friend. If you’re proud of America and what it’s achieved, then The Last Samurai is for you, too. It proves that Tom Cruise is so cool, he can teach the emperor of Japan how to be Japanese. Take it seriously if you like, or think of it as just skivvies and air guitar; but either way, The Last Samurai knows how to please.
It begins, in fact, by distinguishing itself from less competent entertainments. When first seen, Captain Algren has been reduced to putting on Wild West shows for the Winchester rifle company. The script he’s been given is pompous, the set design cheesy, the sales pitch blatant; and since Algren performs in a state of drunken disgust, the actor, too, is inept. From this introduction, we’re meant to conclude that Algren hates himself for what he’s done as an Indian fighter and hates the people who ignorantly hail him. But the scene might also convey a second message: that this skit for the Winchester company is unworthy of Tom Cruise. He requires a luxury vehicle, like the movie you’re about to watch.
So the thunderous splendors of The Last Samurai unfold; and again, to the movie’s credit, they’re as good as advertised. What Captain Algren observes of his samurai captors might be said as well for cinematographer John Toll and production designer Lilly Kilvert: In whatever they do, they strive to be perfect. The young actress Koyuki is perfect as a stoic widow, who must put up with, and almost come to love, Captain Algren. (She’s the only woman in the movie, which is one more than you get in that other boys’ adventure, Master and Commander.) Above all, Ken Watanabe is perfect as Katsumoto, with his head like a round, sculpted stone and his voice like a rumor of earthquake. Although there’s a bit of totemic nonsense about Algren and a tiger–the direction by Edward Zwick, and the script by Zwick, John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz, are not entirely perfect–it’s clear to everyone, Tom Cruise included, that the real man in this movie is Watanabe. If the outward story of The Last Samurai concerns Algren’s progress from a show-biz version of heroism to the real thing under Katsumoto’s tutelage, then the inward action is about Cruise’s effort to be less of a star and more of a Watanabe.