If you've longed to see Cruise modeling a kimono and speaking halting Japanese, here's your chance. Aside from those oddball highlights, The Last Samurai is a self-consciously ambitious epic, directed and cowritten by Ed Zwick (The Siege), that ultimately buckles under the strain of trying to serve up an ill-fitting mix of bloody action, romance and concentrated lessons on Japanese history. Less might have been more here.
Set in 1876, Last's troubled hero is ex-Army Capt. Nathan Algren (Cruise; see page 73), who fought in the Civil and Indian Wars but is now a disillusioned boozer. That is, until a former commander drafts Algren to go over to Japan and teach the emperor's newly conscripted soldiers the art of modern warfare. When Algren is taken prisoner by opposing samurai warriors during a battle, he finds himself drawn to the samurai's ancient ways and codes of honor, not to mention one of their women. Think Dances with Wolves transposed to Japan.
Cruise, as always, takes it all ever so seriously. Though he periodically breaks out with his trademark grin, he mostly broods, which doesn't liven up the proceedings. The real star is Watanabe, who plays the leader of the samurai with a wit as sharp as his sword. (R)