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Review: Cruise brilliant in 'Last Samurai'

Beautiful acting, beautiful script, beautiful film

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Tom Cruise plays an American who travels to Japan to help train Japanese warriors in "The Last Samurai."

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Tom Cruise

(CNN) -- Tom Cruise is Hollywood's Golden Boy, in more than one sense: a bankable movie star who can guarantee a blockbuster hit even when the project is less than stellar.

For a long time now, he's cruised on his box office power with projects such as "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999), "Vanilla Sky" (2001) and "Minority Report" (2002), films in which he played Tom Cruise more than his character. None of these were great films, but his marquee value saved the day, and they all made millions.

In the case of "The Last Samurai," he becomes an actor again.

"Samurai" is a spectacular epic adventure, and Cruise is stunning as Captain Nathan Algren, a Union soldier from the Civil War who loses his soul on the battlefield and sells himself off to the Japanese Imperial Army as a mercenary.

Now, Cruise can act. A quick look at "Rain Man" (1988) and "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989) proves the point. But with "The Last Samurai," Cruise not only shows -- once again -- that he can really, really act, but this role actually demonstrates an enormous growth in his skills. Cruise becomes Nathan Algren more than he has ever inhabited a character before.

Directed by Edward Zwick (1989's "Glory" and 1994's "Legends of the Fall"), the action begins shortly after the American Civil War. At the same time, Japan is shaking off thousands of years of deeply ingrained traditions and cultural isolationism. The emperor is determined to modernize his nation and needs a updated army to achieve that goal.

Standing in his way is the ancient culture of the samurai and those warriors' strict dedication to protecting their emperor -- and their way of life -- with traditional weapons of arrows and spears.

Finding a cause

Last Samurai
Cruise's character gets involved with the sister of a samurai. She's played by the Japanese actress Koyuki.

Economic trade with the West is about to open, so the old ways are doomed. Katsumoto (played with great skill by veteran Japanese actor Ken Watanabe), the leader of the last of the samurai, decides to take a final stand before the end of this chapter in Japan's history.

At this point Capt. Algren, a borderline alcoholic, arrives as part of a group of former American soldiers hired to transform Japan's army into a modern-day fighting force, complete with cannons, Gatling guns, rifles and pistols.

Algren is a grim, angry man with no illusions. After a horrifying ordeal in the Civil War, and being forced to take part in hideous Indian massacres, honor and country are meaningless words to him. He goes about training the Japanese soldiers on automatic pilot. Never again will his emotions become involved in any kind of cause -- noble or otherwise.

Then his unprepared troops are suddenly called to duty. Algren knows his men are not ready, but he's overruled. Reluctantly he leads his green soldiers into battle against the renegade samurai. The result is a slaughter, and Algren -- much to his surprise -- is captured alive and taken prisoner.

Katsumoto, it seems, saw him in battle and was impressed enough to spare his life, while at the same time using Algren to practice his English skills and learn whatever he can about the enemy Algren represents.

Slowly, Algren begins to heal from his wounds and starts to observe the life around him. He's living in a traditional samurai village where every man, woman, and child devotes every moment to the spiritual and physical demands of honoring and learning the art of a samurai.

To Algren's dismay, he discovers that the woman caring for him, Taka (played by one of Japan's best actresses, Koyuki) is Katsumoto's sister -- and was made a widow when Algren killed her husband in battle.

The awakening of Algren's heart and soul and his renewed belief in honor and courage is beautifully realized by Cruise's performance. The samurai way of life restores his faith in the human spirit and reminds him that sacrifice in the service of a noble moral code is still worth fighting for.

Slowly, Katsumoto and Algren build a bond based on mutual respect and a deep belief in Bushido, the samurai's code of honor -- a code that, for Algren, transcends culture.

Love and war

Last Samurai
The battle scenes of "The Last Samurai" are brutal -- and beautiful, says CNN critic Paul Clinton.

Zwick and his co-producer and co-writer Marshall Herskovitz (screenplay credit also goes to John Logan) have created a beautiful film that combines terrifying battle sequences with a deeply moving love story. In fact, they've interwoven a number of love stories into this magnificent piece of work.

There is the love between the two warriors, Algren and Katsumoto, who have bounded like brothers; the forbidden love that develops between Algren and Taka; and finally the doomed love these people have for a way of life destined to disappear under the relentless march of progress.

All of this takes place on a canvas of great scope, showing an entire culture -- and a way of life that had lasted for centuries -- undergoing a catastrophic change.

This is a big movie, with big themes and bigger-than-life characters. The battle scenes are not only spectacular, they are also emotional. The men fight against all odds, using arrows and spears against cannons and bullets, all the while knowing their cause is doomed.

"The Last Samurai" is spectacularly filmed by John Toll, who won Academy Awards for both "Legends of the Fall" and "Braveheart." The production design by Lilly Kilvert feels utterly real and historically correct, sweeping you into this expertly crafted period piece.

This film has Oscar bait written all over it. You will be seeing "The Last Samurai" vying for all the top categories come Academy Award night.

"The Last Samurai" opens nationwide on Friday, December 5, and it's rated R. The film was produced by Warner Bros., a division of Time Warner, as is CNN.

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