The Last Samurai is the story of Capt. Nathan Algren (Cruise), an American Civil War veteran turned vaudeville attraction, a man so haunted by his past he cannot see any future. Algren shares the public honor of surviving Gettysburg, but he also bears the very private dishonor of participating in Gen. George Custer's later campaigns against the indigenous tribes of North America. He's a fierce fighter without a good, clean fight on his conscience. As the film opens, he sits in silence, friendless but for his flask. Everything begins to change, however, when Algren is approached by his old colonel (Tony Goldwyn); the emperor of Japan is seeking to hire American military men to help build a modern army that will suppress the rebellious samurai. Algren has no prospects and even less pride, so he hops a freighter, bound for a fight he does not understand.
Because he is forced to engage the enemy before his "recruits" are ready, Algren soon finds himself on the wrong side of a samurai sword. The warlord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) has had a dream of a white tiger in his midst; seeing Algren's animal intensity on the battlefield, he captures -- rather than kills -- him. Thus as East meets West and past meets future, the destinies of two men collide so violently that they merge.
If there is any one secret to Cruise's Oscar-caliber performance, the eyes have it. Not since his powerhouse portrayal as Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone's stunning Born on the Fourth of July has Cruise summoned this kind of intensity in those windows to the soul. Algren's moment of revelation comes as his war shifts from the one between his heart and his head to the kind his captor is waging: a struggle to preserve a way of life, to wage war not for mercenary means and certainly not for ruthless rat bastards like Goldwyn's Col. Bagly, to fight and die with something more on your mind than survival.
As Algren claws his way back to a long-ago discarded hope of living, fighting and dying with honor, Cruise undergoes a subtle physical transformation. In the beginning, his gaze is feverish, his face skeletal and hollow. As Algren changes, so do his eyes, until that one fight on a darkened street corner when a spirit's rift is repaired, when the fighter dies and the warrior is born. It is in that moment that Nathan Algren becomes the last samurai -- and that Tom Cruise becomes something much more than simply a movie star.
The double-edginess of Cruise's performance is matched by Watanabe -- the Japanese actor makes a shattering English-speaking debut. It's been far too long since two such male presences squared off on the big screen, standing shoulder to shoulder, parrying talent with talent. Katsumoto is an enigma; he represents a way of life not easily comprehended. He fully understands that those who live by the sword will, most probably, perish by the sword. (Or, in this case, by the howitzers of an advancing army.) He is, in many ways, a man destined only for death. But Watanabe effortlessly imbues him with elegance and wit; he traps us in his stillness and then reveals how similar we all are under the skin.
Director Edward Zwick handles all of this with a grace not previously demonstrated in his work as a director. He's ventured into epic territory before, most unnotably with Legends of the Fall. His greatest successes have come as the producer of such Academy Award-winning fare as Shakespeare in Love and Traffic. With The Last Samurai, he finally reaches the Hollywood stratosphere all on his own. His camera work is inventive but not showy, best encapsulated in an early beheading scene: as a failed samurai submits to the sword of Katsumoto, Zwick's camera creatively captures the violence of the gesture without cheapening the import of the action.
His honorable intentions are strengthened by the mystical sensibilities of Academy Award-winning director of photography John Toll, who here displays the same acuity for the zen of battle that he honed on Terrence Malick's atmospheric, unforgettable The Thin Red Line. The script -- penned by Zwick, John Hogan and Marshall Herskovitz -- builds deliciously and excruciatingly to a battle so ultimate that, in a day and age when the Hollywood machine so rarely makes movies for the ages, The Last Samurai is a keeper.