You do not have a credible performance by Tom Cruise in the titular role.
"The Last Samurai" is formulaic epic: exotic location, historical shift in culture (Japan on the brink of modernism), a singular hero tested to the max, and warfare on a grand scale. Add grand cinematography with over 21/2 hours of screen time, and you have a Hollywood epic.
What you do not have is a credible performance by Tom Cruise in the titular role. He's athletic enough to play a soldier of fortune but not mature enough to play a Civil-War-weary Captain facing combat with what may be the last natural fighting machine in Japan, the Samurai. I break no rules of critical propriety to tell you that after being captured by the Samurai, Cruise assimilates, much as Kevin Costner's Lt. Dunbar did in "Dances with Wolves, " facing the dilemma of fighting his own country to defend his new family.
John Toll's ("Vanilla Sky") cinematography of New Zealand and Japan is sumptuous; the Japanese Samurai clan is as dignified as Chow Yun Fat's in "Crouching Tiger"; and the mainstream Japanese and post-war American profiteers and soldiers, enlisted by the Japanese to squelch the Samurai, are as stereotyped as you could expect from Hollywood. There is enough sword fighting to make you long for the wide-open spaces of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" enough silly glances between Cruise and a Japanese widow to make you long for the mirth in "Teahouse of the August Moon," and enough trite dialogue to make you long for the wit of "Bridge on the River Kwai."
Director Edward Zwick ("Glory") may have been influenced by Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" but still follows technical and thematic clich?s while producer Cruise makes a middling top-gun shogun. Too bad because the contemporary parallels about messing on a global scale with other countries and integrating on a personal one hold promise worthy of a true epic.