*The Last Samurai (R)
Westerns and samurai flicks have long shared a cinematic sensibility, and The Last Samurai continues the tradition. Melding film genres, this epic tale of a Westerner who goes to Japan to train imperial soldiers in modern warfare, but ends up fighting with the samurai, combines elements of Dances With Wolves, Braveheart, Seven Samurai and director Edward Zwick's own best work, Glory, in a big Hollywood spectacle that only occasionally loses its way.
Tom Cruise is Nathan Algren, a former Indian fighter under Custer, grown cynical who has, alcoholic and is plagued with post-traumatic flashbacks of massacres he participated in against women, children and other innocent tribal members. The year is 1876, and Captain Algren has stooped to performing at gun shows while vigorously swigging on a bottle backstage. When he is reunited in San Francisco with former comrades Zeb Gant (Billy Connolly) and his former commander Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), he is convinced to join them in Japan where he will train the emperor's army to use modern firearms in their skirmishes with samurai warriors. The samurai, led by the great warrior Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), oppose the modernization of Japan and have taken to blowing up train stations.
Algren's charges are timid with their guns and uncertain of modern ways, but nonetheless take up the call to arms and eventually march off to face the samurai on the battlefield. A stunning scene ensues where the imperial army waits in a fog-enshrouded forest while the distant hoofbeat of the samurai's horses grows louder. The samurai slaughter the ill-prepared troops and take Capt. Algren prisoner.
A quiet 30-minute sequence ensues where Algren first goes through alcohol withdrawal and the healing of his battle injuries, under the gentle care of Katsumoto's sister Taka (Koyuki), widow of one of the samurai Algren killed, and mother of two young sons. Algren has been taken to a rural mountainside village where Katsumoto's 1,000-year-old family shrine provides spiritual solace for the leader and where the samurai practice their sword skills, preparing for the next round of battle.
Algren is benignly neglected by his captors, but eventually is allowed to practice with the warriors. These are bracing, humorous scenes where we see our hero repeatedly knocked off his feet, whacked across the back of the head and generally humiliated. He also engages in daily conversations in English with Katsumoto, with whom he develops a respectful rapport. When the village is attacked by ninjas, he saves the lives of Taka and her family and Katsumoto, and he eventually joins the samurai against the imperial army.
The emperor's army has by now acquired bigger guns and the soldiers have become better acquainted with their weapons. The result of the final battle is predicted by the film's title, but the stunning choreography and the graceful cinematography come as a breathtaking surprise. These are simply magnificent film moments as staged by Zwick, photographed by John Toll, and set to music by Hans Zimmer.
One could argue that the mere idea of an American, especially a cocky top gun like Tom Cruise, becoming a samurai is an arrogant and ill-conceived conceit. But Cruise pulls it off with his stock moves -- clenched jaw, reluctant tears, boyish grin and quick physicality. The true star of The Last Samurai, however, is Watanabe, an actor with the stature and grace of Chow Yun-Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the sonorous voice of Yul Brynner.
A few wooden lines of dialogue can be forgiven, as can the occasional simplification of the glory of the samurai and the rapaciousness of the American-trained and armed military, because the bulk of the film is so expertly conceived and executed. As the woman behind us said when the credits went up: "Now that's a movie." Amen, sister.
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown