Cruise plays Nathan Algren a haunted American Cavalry officer who has seen too much killing and destruction to believe in any cause, noble or otherwise. Describing General Custer as a fool who started to believe his own myth gives a fair indication of his state of mind. Having presided over the destruction of the ancient American Indian way of life, Algren ends up selling Lee Enfield rifles at traveling fairs, when sober enough to clamber onto the stage.
Enter Zebulon Grant (Billy Connolly) his trusty sergeant who reintroduces Algren to his despised ex-commanding officer who is brokering an arms deal with the Japanese government. Algren is offered more of the same type of work, oppressing the ancient Samurai rebellion by training the Japanese army in exchange for a large salary with blood on every bank note. If successful, the USA will receive lucrative weapons contracts from the “West” obsessed living god emperor, Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura). A weak and easily manipulated young man taught ironically by the leader of the Samurai revolt Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).
Prematurely captured in the first skirmish with the Samurai, Algren is kept alive by Katsumoto ostensibly to learn more about his enemy.
The film widens at this point into a poignant segment where Algren begins to exorcise his demons. Moving away from the ever present bottle of hard liquor, he begins to experience something of a spiritual reawakening. As time passes he becomes entranced by the strict code of honour, discipline and understanding underpinning the rigidly hierarchal society. An obvious slight twist deepens the relationship he forges with his female nurse and host. There is a beautifully played scene where she dresses him for battle, in a scene that could have been shown in the usual way – tanned bodies, lighting & billowing sheets etc but is more sensual for the lack of contact shown.
Surprisingly it is Watanabe rather than Cruise, who provides the centre point upon which the whole film rests. If his performance was not of such a high standard the project could have been in “Far and Away” territory leaving Cruise hideously exposed. Watanabe exudes controlled physical & mental depth fully justifying the respect bestowed upon him by the village as a whole.
Cruise has clearly trained long and hard to handle the physical demands placed upon him and does well, handling two swords as if he was born with a weapon in his hand. The battle scenes are well staged, violent & brutal in places but the quieter scenes are where the film works particularly well, which is unusual in a blockbuster film of this type.
A sweeping well staged drama with technically impressive fight scenes with parallels with world politics of today if you choose to look. Cruise is credible & immerses himself in the role as much as is possible, although upstaged by a towering performance by Watanabe. The central premise of a doomed way of life providing redemption to a lost soul is a surprising choice for a blockbuster. The movie works for both 15 years olds wanting action but also on another level for an older audience, a testament to the skill of the director and screenwriter (Zwick)