Hard to believe, but it's been 20 years since Thomas Cruise Mapother IV first snared the planet's attention with that Y-fronted dance routine in Risky Business. Since then he's kept us distracted from our popcorn tubs in the blockbusting likes of Top Gun and Mission: Impossible. He's also kept those acting muscles toned, no doubt hoping that at least one of his performances would achieve Academy recognition. Of his three noms, two for Best Actor and one for Supporting, he came closest with 1990's Born On The Fourth Of July. Months of buzz tagged him as a shoe-in, only for Daniel Day-Lewis to swipe the baldie for My Left Foot.
The Last Samurai sees Cruise's acting chops at their leanest since his turn as crippled war vet Ron Kovic in Born. And the two roles aren't without their similarities: like Kovic, Captain Nathan Algren is a soldier who's undergone a soul-destroying experience through the horrors of battle, a man whose emotional journey is one of self-rediscovery. And, like Kovic, Algren is partially symbolic of an American guilt for its past imperialist incursions.
Of course, we're looking at an entirely different historical backdrop here. Director Edward Zwick insists he's been fascinated by the demise of feudal Japan since his late teens, and it's easy to see why. The Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century saw an almost-medieval Nippon making its first contact with the West in 200 years, as the country's emperor endeavoured to industrialise his parochial nation. The ensuing, often violent clash of cultures and technologies makes for great drama - and some truly indelible imagery. Imagine a sword-wielding warrior fearlessly charging a huge, lead-spitting (American-manufactured) machine-gun and you have The Last Samurai in a nutshell.
As Algren, Cruise faces the difficult task of both representing the forces of progress/destruction, while coming to love and respect the "savage" culture he's been charged with suppressing. In this sense, he's more like Dances With Wolves' John Dunbar than Ron Kovic, and it's not for nothing that The Last Samurai has been tagged Dances With Samurai. Of course, this being Cruise, and this being Zwick in solid, Hollywood-historical-epic mode, Algren is never entirely unsympathetic, and the film's more concerned with the growth of mutual respect between the self-loathing soldier and his captors. But the story never rises above formula, and fans of the genre are bound to find it predictable, right down to the overuse of voiceover and the romantic interest.
Also, unlike Dances With Wolves, it's too shy about using subtitles when 80 percent of the dialogue should be in Japanese. Ken Watanabe's imposing Samurai leader speaks near-fluent English with no explanation (if the Samurai are resisting Westernisation, how did he learn the language?), and it jars that some of his key lines are uttered in what is, for him, an alien tongue.
Yet in terms of making the historical-romance formula work, The Last Samurai is exemplary. As he proved with 1989's Civil War drama Glory, Zwick knows where to find the buttons, which ones to push, and how to push 'em. Especially when he's helming a battle scene. There are two grand-scale conflicts here, and both will send tingles zinging from your nape down to your tailbone.
One sees the Samurai make their entrance, galloping out of the fog in slo-mo as Algren's undergarment-browned troops fumble with their firearms. The other is the climactic battle, for which Algren has switched sides; a set-piece worthy of comparison with Braveheart or Gladiator (both share The Last Samurai's swordmaster, Nick Powell).
For all the talk by cast and filmmakers of Mr Mapother's "generosity" during the shoot, this is very much his movie. Billy Connolly barely makes a dent as Algren's brother-in-arms and Tim Spall's English interpreter is no more than an expository tool. The Japanese cast fare better, with Watanabe maintaining an impressive presence even when sharing the screen with Cruise, while Hiroyuki Sanada lends attention-catching support as the warrior who hates Algren with a fury.
But, with Cruise appearing in virtually every scene, this is Algren's journey and Tom's most obvious Academy Award bid to date. And with no Day-Lewis around to steal his thunder, we may just see him stroking Oscar's golden bonce yet...