In The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise playing a Civil War captain who moves to 19th-century Japan, where he learns to play a samurai warrior. Not that there's anything wrong with Cruise playing Cruise; it's what he famously does, with glittering intensity. And when he's well matched with a role that plays off his lustrous, opaque core, as in ''Jerry Maguire'' or ''Minority Report,'' Cruise is a pulsar of gorgeous, distant luminosity.
But let's be clear: The star of Edward Zwick's rousing, smoothly assembled historical fantasia is no samurai, nor a Civil War captain either, no matter how studiously the actor has applied himself to mastering the arcane techniques of martial arts. The galactic opposite of Russell Crowe (a huge star who eclipses his public persona to become each character), Cruise turns Capt. Nathan Algren into an approximation, a model, an avatar of a Western-born, Eastern-trained warrior. In a moment of loudly telegraphed cultural adjustment, Algren -- who has been hired to teach Japanese conscripts how to fight in the "modern" style, with impersonal Western weapons and conventional battle plans -- exchanges his dirty, showy officer's uniform for a clean, simple Japanese robe, and for the first time comprehends the elegant humility of padding barefoot in a spotless house. And an audience's first, spontaneous response is: Doesn't Tom Cruise look handsome in a long dress!
He does, of course. And ''The Last Samurai'' is a handsome epic, a brave-hearted 19th-century man-saga from the director who made the period piece man-sagas ''Glory'' and ''Legends of the Fall.'' (Honorable confession: I wept great ploppy tears during the fabulous battle scenes, shot by that master of scope, swell, and ''The Thin Red Line,'' cinematographer John Toll.) In the movie, Algren is an embittered Civil War hero disillusioned by the killing he has seen and in which he himself has participated; he's gone to seed. The Japanese job offers even more money he can blow on drink, this time in an exotic country where old ways and old concepts of honor and personal responsibility are being destroyed by technological and cultural "progress": The country's susceptible young emperor (Kabuki star Shichinosuke Nakamura), wooed by American tycoons with propositions for a lucrative future of trade, not only accepts American help in shaping up a modern army but also agrees with his advisers to get rid of the tradition-bound caste of samurai who have protected Japan's emperors for centuries.
So Algren growls his way to the mysterious East. And there his system of beliefs -- really, of disbeliefs -- is challenged by the true warriors he meets, led by a charismatic leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the last of his breed. Because Watanabe is a well-known Japanese TV star but unknown in the U.S., I have no way of knowing whether the actor playing Katsumoto has indeed obscured himself in the armor of an esteemed fighter or whether, to his fans, he just looks like Ken Watanabe in samurai drag. But we do know that he's magnetic and majestic-looking, capable of simultaneously projecting a fierce courage and a poetry-loving heart. (In certain lights, he's also capable of looking like The Rock.) And that when Algren is captured by Katsumoto after a skirmish in which the two men recognize a certain temperamental affinity, Watanabe effortlessly lays claim to the acting honors in this ''Last Samurai'' show.
Moved by the serenity of his new environment, not to mention by the liquid grace of Katsumoto's sister, Taka (Koyuki), Algren comes to love his enemies, and fight for them. Moved by commitment to the inner search for manly authenticity, Zwick, working from a baggy script he cowrote with Marshall Herskovitz and John Logan (''Gladiator''), establishes a fond feel for archaic society -- and a Hollywood warrior's weakness for succumbing to pop conventions (in the Algren-and- Taka subplot, for instance, or in the Hollywood-star-style ingratiating coda) where his idol of the genre, Akira Kurosawa, would not. "No disrespect intended, sir, but shove it up your ass" is one of Algren's more 20th-century, less haiku-style utterances, before he meets Katsumoto and hears his wise counterpart admire a cherry blossom and pronounce "Know life in every breath."
As he undergoes conversion, Algren marvels at his new friends who "devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue." Cruise pursues perfection too, plying his craft as if on a celebrity mission. It's monkish work, and doesn't invite closeness, but it commands respect, in actors or in samurai.