It’s Ken Watanabe’s movie – Tom Cruise just stars in it. The Last Samurai is essentially a quiet little epic, told in silent observation as much as in word and deed, which suits an actor of consummate grace like the Oscar-nominated Watanabe. If only there were more of him.
But Cruise’s name is above the title, so the film focuses on his Nathan Algren, an alcoholic Civil War captain who, during Reconstruction, accepts $500 a month to teach Japan’s Imperial Army modern military tactics for their fight against the samurai. Since we wouldn’t have a story unless the samurai took Algren hostage, they oblige and he goes native – adopting their dress, their culture, and just enough Japanese to sound pithy yet profound.
And that’s where the gorgeously shot film earns its dismissive ”Dances With Samurai.” If there’s any sentiment that isn’t telegraphed, any action that isn’t predictable, it’s not from lack of trying. The exception? Watanabe, whose open face and ready humor are a constant delight. His Katsumoto is, as director Edward Zwick says in the commentary, ”the moral center of the film.” We don’t hear much else about Watanabe, but there’s more than enough on Cruise: his acting talent, his fight training, his Japanese accent (which Zwick talks over for most of his monotonic commentary). Overall, the two-disc set has too much production detail and too few deleted scenes, and the footage from the Japanese premieres lacks subtitles. Now, if they’d included the Berlitz course Tom must have taken, THAT would have been worth watching.