Perhaps the title "Dances with Samurai" was already taken when "Gladiator" screenwriter John Logan began work on this grandiose Oscar-baiting epic about a drunk, disillusioned Civil War veteran who is sent to Japan to help Westernize its military, but instead comes to embrace the honor and discipline of the ill-fated warrior class he's meant to defeat.

"The Last Samurai" does bear an undeniable structural and emotional resemblance to Kevin Costner's 1990 American frontier drama, also about a 19th-century soldier who casts off his imperialist ways to be absorbed into a native culture. But in this film the white man is played by Uber Movie Star Tom Cruise with a melodramatic steamer-trunk's worth of emotional baggage -- two factors that tend to draw focus away from the fact that a culture is being obliterated and toward the interloper's personal journey through self-loathing to redemption and heroism.

With his feathered, over-conditioned hair and blinding white teeth, Cruise is inescapably incongruous with 1870s Japan, but he does turn in an otherwise strong performance as army captain Nathan Algren, a man haunted by memories and beset by the remorse for his part in the Indian Campaigns that wiped out thousands of Native Americans in the name of Manifest Destiny.

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