There's a defining moment in The Last Samurai's effort to ship Dances With Wolves' epic template across to 19th-century Japan. It's the second that Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a booze-soaked, guilt-wracked Civil War veteran hired to exterminate Japan's ancient warriors but now entranced by their noble way of life, steps into the sunlight decked in a crimson suit of Samurai armour. It's his final rejection of the soulless stampede of modernisation, the culmination of his spiritual transformation. And it's quite funny. Why? Because, like director Edward Zwick, Tom Cruise is deadly serious about convincing us that we're watching a deeply worthy film. He's acting here. And, by God, don't we know it.
Now that's not to say the Cruiser puts on a bad show (face it, that never really happens). In fact, the immersive physicality of his performance - and the movie itself - is apparent from the first stunning woodland battle, which sees Algren's gun-toting troops shredded by Samurai warriors who emerge from the mist like vengeful apparitions.
One thing's for certain: Glory boy Zwick knows how to stage a ruckus. Be it the brilliantly choreographed sword-duels, the ferocious ninja sneak-attack or the huge battlefield mêlées, The Last Samurai packs some thrilling action. And the recreation of 19th-century Japan? Hugely evocative - superb production design, sets and costumes all lensed with magnificent romance by Braveheart DoP John Toll. What's more, there's an excellent supporting cast. Ken Watanabe, as the Samurai lord who captures and befriends Algren, is particularly impressive, his calm gravitas holding fast against Cruise's tractor-beam magnetism.
A handsome spectacle, then. But it's sandbagged at every step by an incredibly laboured stoicism. With their deeply pious musings on honour, loyalty and trampled tradition, Cruise and Zwick are straining hard here. And it shows. Dented by its inability to match its own lofty ambitions, the movie finally refuses the only true possible ending. Ironically, it's a film about honour that can't find the heart to fall on its sword.