When we meet Tom Cruise's Captain Nathan Algren in 1876, he's a wreck, drinking heavily to drown his memories of massacring Indians on the American frontier, lost in despairing cynicism. Then he's recruited to help train a modern army in Japan, the chief function of which is to put down a samurai rebellion against the new, dishonorable, Westernizing ways that his army symbolizes. In the first, brilliantly staged fight, Algren is captured by the samurai and sequestered for a long winter in their remote village, where there's nothing much to do but learn the harsh yet entirely admirable samurai code.
His particular instructor is Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the samurai leader, who recognizes in Algren something of the warrior stuff. The American is not afraid of death. What has to be burned out of him is the desire to seek it. This gradually happens, and Algren and the widow of a man he killed (the Japanese model turned actress Koyuki) fall shyly into unspoken love.
It's easy to stand back and wax ironic about The Last Samurai. But it's not all that difficult to succumb to its full-spirited romanticism either. The director, Edward Zwick, whose Glory is one of the rare, recent triumphs among grand historical tales, has obviously studied his Kurosawa. Working on the script with Marshall Herskovitz and John Logan, Zwick brings the master's concentrated fury to his depictions of hand-to-hand combat; a certain raw, muddy brutality to Cruise's training for those moments; and both epic sweep and powerful detail to the big battles. By way of contrast, there is a handsome geometric austerity to the way Zwick and his director of photography, John Toll, show court life and intimate life in a Japan trembling on the brink of modernity.
In the end, the samurai whose honor demands that they fight only with swords, bows and arrows must go against an army of howitzers and Gatling guns. It's a great set piece, both militarily and cinematically, and one that allows us to mix shreds of hope with our doomy forebodings. And, indeed, a moral victory of the kind that doesn't necessarily count in the win column is achieved.
The Last Samurai is a movie that demands our surrender to its energy, to its bold-stroke moviemaking, to its acting (particularly by Cruise and Watanabe, who blend musing and graceful muscularity) and, above all, to its romantic vision of a lost world. You have to rationalize its commitment to the warrior values that, nostalgized and bastardized, would help make Japan such a cruel and dangerous player on the world stage less than a century later. But because the movie's business is to celebrate those values in uncorrupted form, viewers can probably silence such concerns.
What makes this film riskier than Braveheart or Gladiator, each of which did well commercially by anachronistically having its heroes fight and die for a form of modern democracy, is that Nathan Algren is battling for something that is somehow more personal and more abstract: a highly individual concept of honor. In the context of this very beautiful film, it is a struggle worth attending.