A decorated soldier Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) fought bravely during the Civil War but in the years thereafter pragmatism and self-interest embittered him. He now drinks heavily to drown his nightmares--particularly the ones about his role in decimating the proud Native Americans in the name of progress during the Indian Wars of the 1870s. As a mercenary for hire Algren heads to Japan to train the newly formed Imperial Army and usher it into the burgeoning age of modern Western culture--a shift that will put Japan's ancient customs and values in jeopardy including the tradition of the fierce and highly respected samurai warriors who once protected Japan with their fabled swords and still live by a strict code of honor. The scenario is eerily similar to Algren's experience with the Native Americans but at this point he doesn't care; he just wants to get the job done get paid and get out. But when the Samurai led by the powerful Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) capture him and take him to their remote mountain village the reluctant prisoner slowly learns about the loyalty courage fortitude and sacrifice these noble people believe in so completely. Watching them "spend every moment doing whatever they do to perfection " Algren is quickly won over and feels he has finally found his place in the world. He trains with the samurai becomes Katsumoto's friend and grows to love his newfound family. He's particularly fond of Katsumoto's beautiful sister Taka (Koyuki) with whom he develops a refreshingly chaste romance and her young son Magojiro (Aoi Minato). Yet the foreseeable battle between the old and the new looms over the proceedings and as the title indicates things do not end well for these proud warriors.
Cruise flourishes when he's on the edge--think Rain Man Magnolia Jerry Maguire--and here he does an excellent job as the disillusioned and haunted former Civil War captain who drinks too much. But as a born-again samurai warrior he doesn't quite fit the bill. Algren's transformation into a samurai is too pat and Cruise infuses the last quarter of the film with melodramatic mush before rushing onto the battlefield and kicking butt with a big-ass sword. It doesn't help that the role itself is farfetched; it's true that Japanese history would have to be rewritten if a real samurai survived but why should an American be the "last samurai" who reminds the Japanese emperor of the venerable swordsmen and Japan's roots? Thank heaven for the talented Japanese cast. Koyuki one of Japan's most popular actresses has a remarkably expressive face projecting strength and fragility at the same time. The young Minato as the defiant Magojiro is also a true find as a boy desperate to become a samurai. Watanabe however steals the show even from the film's more famous star as the formidable Katsumoto commanding the screen with quiet fierceness during their shared scenes.
Samurai overcomes its formulaic story to some degree in its execution. Japanese culture and history clearly fascinate director Edward Zwick (Glory Legends of the Fall) producer Marshall Herskovitz and writer John Logan who pay meticulous attention to the historical details of Japan's Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century--when the end of the rule by the old shogunate or feudal government led to the country's first encounter with the West after a self-imposed isolation of 200 years. Zwick's team created authentic sets and gorgeous costumes and took copious advantage of the beautiful surroundings especially the small town of Himeji. The attention to detail becomes a bit much however as the samurai prepare for their final climactic battle--several of these scenes could have been cut. But Zwick really shines as the battle finally begins: When the outnumbered samurai make their last stand charging a hillside of Imperial soldiers armed with rudimentary machine guns it's with the same doomed bravado the director captured in Glory when the black Civil War soldiers fought their last battle. The emotional impact continues when the battle ends and the entire Imperial army--made up mostly of Japanese peasants who have been turned into soldiers but cannot suppress many of their own beliefs--bow down on the battlefield to honor the fallen samurai. It's certainly a memorable moment.