It’s 1876 and Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a broken man. A survivor of the Indian wars and Custer’s defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn, he’s seen more death and horror in his time than any man has a right to. When he’s not too drunk, he’s a sideshow sharp-shooter, killing time until either the whiskey or the bad dreams finish him off. His old comrade Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) appears to throw him a lifeline, offering him the opportunity to go to Yokomama and train up the Imperial Japanese army. Seems they’re having trouble with one of their own?a fearsome samurai warlord, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), whose objections to the Westernisation of the Imperial court have angered the Emperor’s more machiavellian advisors. Katsumoto, it seems, must be terminated with extreme prejudice.
The first engagement with the samurai turns into a rout, most of Algren’s woefully inexperienced men left for dead and Algren himself wounded and taken hostage by Katsumoto, who plans to learn what he can about his new enemy. Held prisoner in Katsumoto’s mountain village during the long winter months, Algren is slowly inspired by the samurai’s transcendental moral and spiritual codes, and finds his own sense of honour subsequently reawakened. In the end, he finds himself fighting alongside Katsumoto against the Imperial army and Bagley, looking for redemption on the battlefield, outgunned and outmanned but ready to die, at last, for something that he truly believes in.
The idea of a soldier going native isn’t new to cinema?John Milius, for instance, squeezed two screenplays out of the premise with Apocalypse Now and Farewell To The King. Here Cruise and director Ed Zwick have created a spectacular, old-fashioned epic, more concerned with narrative arcs and character development than wowing audiences with the kind of technological bombast that seems to have become the accepted norm for blockbusters in these post-Matrix times. Cruise, who’s on screen for almost the whole movie, turns in a career-best performance; apart from a shaky start (he doesn’t do drunk very well) you get a real sense of a disillusioned, angry man gradually recovering his self-esteem and finding meaning in his life once more. Watanabe is a charismatic and regal presence, and elsewhere Timothy Spall plays the role that used to be reserved for Robert Morley in these kind of situations.
The final third is the mother of all battles, a relentless blur of swords soundtracked by the never-ending roar of artillery fire, keenly orchestrated by Zwick. It’s ferocious stuff.
A proper movie, in other words.