TOM CRUISE In “The Prettiest Samurai.”

The Last Samurai

dir. Zwick

Opens Fri Dec 5

Various Theaters

"I don't like movies that make people clap."

While off-the-cuff remarks from audience members as they leave the theater may not be the most accurate barometer of a film's worth, the guy who was overheard saying "I don't like movies that make people clap," hit the nail on the head. If I understood his intent correctly, "movies that make people clap," are intended for those of inferior mental capabilities; who are easily manipulated by the sight of a retarded high-schooler making the game-winning touchdown. And while The Last Samurai gets nowhere near that level of eye-rolling sappiness, I distinctly heard some hand-clapping toward the end of the movie, which means anyone of above-average intelligence (such as yourself) should be warned.

The year is 1876, and Tom Cruise plays Civil War hero Nathan Algren, who has been reduced to a drunken, carnival sideshow attraction. To make a quick buck, he accepts a post overseas training Japanese soldiers to battle samurai insurgents, and bring the country's military machine into the modern age. Unfortunately, his trainees are forced into battle far too early, and Algren is taken captive by the enemy. Befriended by the group's leader (Ken Watanabe), Algren must decide if he should betray his own army to join a coup led by ass-kicking samurai. The only logical answer: Shit, yeah.

The directing/producing team of Edward Zwick and Marshall Hersovitz (Glory, Courage Under Fire) are well adapted for encapsulating war down to the internal struggle between a man's honor and his duty. The downside is their insistence on painting their pictures in colorful, overly romantic tones. For example, the recent Master and Commander is history awash in ugly realism; maggots, grisly deaths, body odor. Samurai makes everything prettified--down to the perfect hem of Cruise's robe. Not a capitol offense, but it strains believability; which is even more important when Tom Cruise is supposed to be starring as a "tough guy."

And while Cruise is passable, Russell Crowe would've kicked ass. As it stands, The Last Samurai is a pretty picture book with a rousing battle scene, and a denouement where all the mean people get what's coming to them. Just the kind of thing that makes those kind of people clap.