Sword follower

The Last Samurai
Three-and-a-half reels out of four
R (violence, one fairly tasteful beheading)
Playing in theaters tomorrow

Tom Cruise would seem an odd choice for the role of Nathan Algren, the career soldier at the center of Edward Zwick’s moving but very entertaining The Last Samurai. Although there’s no denying Cruise’s star power, casting the cherubic sex symbol as a hard-nosed and almost-brutal Civil War vet seemed like, er, risky business.

Yet, barring the occasional lapse into his boy-next-door characterization, Cruise pulls it off — and inherently makes the soldier a little more likeable, to boot.

Zwick (Glory, TV’s Thirtysomething) shows that, while he might not be in Martin Scorsese’s league, he could teach the great director a thing or two about making period movies (though I did like Age of Innocence). Unlike the bloated if occasionally stunning Gangs of New York, The Last Samurai possesses not an ounce of fat.

Like the noble samurai to which it pays homage, this movie ruthlessly, effortlessly and quite beautifully carves its own niche in what has become a tired genre — the historical action flick.

As Algren, Cruise depicts a former officer in the Army who has seen better days. Having survived the Civil War and participated in America’s wholesale slaughter of the Indians (with a vague hint he may have been at the Battle of Little Big Horn), he now supports himself demonstrating the impressive Winchester rifle at road shows while regaling the crowd with stories from the frontier.

When an old Army colleague (Tony Goldwyn) shows up with an offer to travel to Japan to mold peasants into soldiers, Algren is only too happy to comply. But, as it turns out, there is a little more to the story.

In fact, they have been hired to quash the rebellion of a noble samurai lord, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who merely wants Japan to think twice before it welcomes American trade and industrialism with open arms. When Katsumoto’s army captures Algren, he gets an opportunity to study the way of the samurai up close and personal and eventually earns their respect.

Due to bouts of emotional barrenness, The Last Samurai just misses being a truly great film. The action sequences are rousing yet never campy, and that’s hard to achieve in films of this genre. The period detail is done with great care and never overwhelms.

Since his bad-boy role opposite the angelic character of Patrick Swayze in Ghost, Goldwyn has been one of my favorite movie sleazeballs. In Samurai, he’s sleazy in a 19th-century sort of way. But the scene-stealer here is Watanabe. His samurai lord is at once fearsome, fair, intelligent and ultimately tragic.

The Last Samurai is a fascinating tale of what happens when two cultures meet at the crossroads of history. It will not fail to entertain, even as you’re reaching for your Kleenex.

Available Tuesday

I thought about this one for a while. Did I want people think I had gone off my rocker in recommending perhaps one of the most reviled films in recent history? Number one: I don’t give a flying you-know-what as far as what people think. Number two: The movie really isn’t that bad. Except for a marginally offensive portrayal of an emotionally handicapped young man (Justin Bartha) and a hit-or-miss quality to the humor, Gigli does possess a modicum of charm. Also, despite what you may have heard, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck do possess a real onscreen chemistry. Video was made for moments like this. Take a chance. What do you have to lose?