Tom Cruise goes from Top Gun to shogun in The Last Samurai, an action-packed historical epic. He cuts up rough as a sword-swinging American Cavalry captain hired to help the Japanese army conquer Katsumoto (the superb Ken Watanabe) and his band of honour-bound samurai warriors. It's Dances With Wolves meets oriental classic The Seven Samurai, with the Cruiser forced to choose between his mercenary masters and the peculiar people who take him prisoner.
Wracked by guilt over his Indian-killing past and angry over the money-driven warmongering of the USA, Algren (Cruise) is attracted to both bushido (the samurai code of honour, self-discipline and simple-living) and Taka (Koyuki), the widowed woman who cares for him. That this process is predictable doesn't make it any less pleasing, with Cruise's character acting as a window into an alien and admirable forgotten world (the film's set in 1876).
"BLOOD-PUMPING, SPECTACULAR ACTION SCENES""The ancient and modern are at war for the soul of Japan," says Timothy Spall's posh Brit translator, explaining the battle that's about to unfold. And while Katsumoto's culture is probably given an over-romantic polish, it's hard not to feel pangs for a past which is presented as prioritising sacrifice, integrity and honour. Oh, and cutting people's heads off.
For aside from the anti-capitalist subtext and the slightly too-serious tone, the action is both bloody and bloody brilliant. Slicing and dicing with elegant abandon, Cruise is utterly convincing in a series of sensational scraps - adrenaline-charged, blood-pumping spectacular action scenes which leave you punching the air with excitement (the ninja assassination set-piece, to use a technical term, absolutely rocks).
The score is annoyingly unsubtle ("Cue the 'Cry Now' music!"), while the star is a little uptight when out of action - stony-faced and obviously after an Oscar (he cries; he drinks; he speaks Japanese). He's as over-earnest as the movie, but come the tear and blood-stained climax, The Last Samurai makes the cut.