'The Last Samurai' lacks Cruise control

In 'Last Samurai,' Japan gets crowded out by Tom Cruise.

Edward Zwick's movies aren't always what they ought to be. His new picture, "The Last Samurai," claims to commemorate aspects of ancient Japanese culture. Yet it gives most of its glamor shots to Tom Cruise, playing an American who helps his Asian friends far more than they help him.

This follows a familiar Zwick pattern. "Glory" cozied up to Matthew Broderick more than Denzel Washington, even though its subject was black Civil War soldiers. Mr. Zwick also seems convinced that his stories are so fascinating that he can tell them very, very slowly. His greatest achievement in this area is the 1994 historical romance "Legends of the Fall," in which you can almost see the characters' mustaches grow, one tedious millimeter at a time.

"The Last Samurai" pushes the limits of patience less relentlessly. It could certainly have accomplished its goals in fewer than 144 minutes, though, and its respect for the samurai tradition would be more credible if Japanese costar Ken Watanabe weren't pushed aside so often so that Cruise can be the center of the movie's awed attention.

Cruise plays a Civil War veteran who's reduced to parodying his exploits in a Wild West show. Saturated with self pity - a quality at which Cruise does not excel - he accepts an offer to train Japanese troops how to use guns so they can subdue Japan's remaining samurai swordsmen. But his loyalties shift when he's held captive in a samurai village overflowing with dignity, fidelity, and honor.

"The Last Samurai" would be a better film if it put less weight on postcard-pretty pictures and more on historical issues. Here are two examples of historical vagueness in a single scene: Why does the emperor interrupt a crucial ceremony just because our hero has barged into the room? And why does the potentate then abruptly change his mind about the direction in which he's been planning to take his country? These might be plausible if the movie gave us a rationale for them. But arbitrary moments like these make "Samurai" less a heart-stirring historical study than a nostalgic fantasy, built on a foundation no firmer than Cruise's superstar persona.

Rated R; contains violence.

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