Say this about The Last Samurai: It has exceptional production values. The period detail feels authentic, the scenery is exquisite, and the battles are vigorously staged. Onscreen evidence of a sizeable budget is what audiences have come to expect from a Tom Cruise film, but The Last Samurai (rated R for strong violence and battle sequences) doesn't deliver much else.
The violent, often brutal story follows Nathan Algren, a disillusioned U.S. Army Captain floundering in post-Civil War America, who receives an offer from the Japanese government to train its new army. The Japanese are particularly interested in Algren's experience fighting Indian tribes, as the emperor is facing his own tribal rebellion.
Algren cynically accepts the offer, but soon finds himself drawn to this alien land and its people. The problem is that Algren doesn't relate to the city folk of Tokyo, but instead to the country rebels, led by the mighty and fabled Samurai. Soon he's helping lead the rebels against the government.
Despite the impressive staging, the story itself is without surprise or insight. There's a single scene that engages the audience the way the entire movie should, during which the Samurai village is attacked by members of another legendary Japanese fighting tradition. The attack is shocking and visceral, where the rest of the movie is telegraphed and flat.
There will be plenty who feel differently about this epic, but almost everything about the screenplay is hackneyed. The only real bad guys are the imperialist U.S. government and Japanese entrepreneurs, who care more about money than tradition. The frequent comedic relief relies on such obviousness as Mr. Cruise dancing around in his Samurai "dress" and deciding to call the non-English-speaking Samurai assigned to guard him "Bob." Even Algren's cultural exploration is surprisingly unperceptive. Algren's voiceover narration uses pleasant-sounding but uninformative words like "fascinating" and "spiritual" to describe his new surroundings.
As a result, the audience will feel little invested in the bloody battle scenes, leaving it more time to notice the needlessly graphic carnage. There are most certainly echoes of Braveheart here, but Braveheart it is not.