Cruise, once an angsty but essentially bland all-American teen heart-throb, continues his maturation into a beardier, altogether more crusty character with at least skin-deep integrity with this role as US Captain Nathan Algren, captive pupil to Samurai tribal leader Katsumoto (the highly charismatic Ken Watanabe). It is 1876, and Algren is a drunk, broken by disillusionment with the federal army's capacity for massacring native Americans, and guilt for his own role in the same. Taken from his demeaning job as a showman demonstrator of Winchester rifles by Gant (Billy Connolly, once again not trying too hard to act in a Hollywood flick), Algren is hired as a mercenary by representatives of the Japanese Emperor to train the newly conscripted forces. Taking the job, substituting sake for whisky and acquiring an odd friend in the form of bumbling translator Simon Graham (Timothy Spall, who, despite being generally excellent, sticks out with Connolly here like a slightly sore pantomime thumb), all very quickly goes to pot when the ill-prepared conscript army is sent to crush a Samurai uprising. Not to give away too much of the plot (you'll already have learned as much from the trailers), Algren is kidnapped, and for 6 months comes to learn the ways of the Samurai - a tribe not of bloodthirsty murderous monsters, but of men, women and children, all sworn to live within a discipline of servitude to their emperor, with honour as the highest virtue.
A sprinkling of Buddhist philosophy, some excellent sword fight scenes (Ninjas included), a strong and beautiful lady (model/actress Koyuki) and some self-discovery later, Algren makes his decision about which side he wants to fight for (have a guess). The cheesy postscript is presumably considered de rigeur after the battering the audience takes beforehand (enough gruesome death for your average year's viewing, never mind your average Cruise audience), but (SPOILER APPROACHES!!) any film that ends with a historic rejection of an exclusive arms contract with the US is ok by me. The hopeless romanticising of a ruthless servile warrior class whose rules of conduct occasionally seem preposterous is an altogether better option.
Brought to us courtesy of Cruise/Wagner productions (responsible for such dubious creations as Vanilla Sky and the Mission Impossibles), The Last Samurai is a sweeping romp of a tale, with breathtaking scenery, hugely expensive sets and a pleasantly dominant Japanese flavour. Martial arts film buffs, Cruise fans and incurable romantics will be pleased; historians may be less impressed, for whilst this story is inspired by a real incident involving a Samurai leader, the rest is fictional liberty. All of which may be immaterial, however, if these potential viewers do not get to see the film because put off by the unfortunate marketing, which manages to convey the impression that it is a jingoistic nightmare. It isn't; WASP-boy Cruise may live to the end of the film, but this time, that doesn't necessarily make him the hero.