Dances with Samurai
The Kill Bill fight scene in a snow covered garden in between The Bride and O-Ren Ishii does more to convey the mystique of the Eastern warrior than any amount of heavy-handed explication could have. But it does it without ever coming out and telling you what it's doing. You're expected to be smart enough to draw your own conclusions. The biggest problem with The Last Samurai is that it never assumes you're smart enough to draw your own conclusions.
A great deal of effort goes into romanticizing the Japanese warrior's code, Bushido. But the director apparently feels the need to spell out everything for the audience. There is no attempt to let us draw our own conclusions, or to let us figure stuff out on our own. If a warrior spends time trying to write a poem about Cherry blossoms and then sees them as he dies, he will mention them and what they mean. Apparently the possibility of some poor shlub paying his $8 and not getting the point was just too much for the film-makers to risk. As a result, a movie which would be best served by subtlety has none.
While some of the fight scenes were beautifully choreographed and filmed, the Samurai are not the Plains Indians (as the movie explicitly tries to convince us) and the non-fight scenes are a waste of our time. There was a good movie in here someplace, but it's buried under tired cinematic cliches and the need to accomodate Cruise's stardom.
The Samurai were, as the movie points out over and over, bound by honor in ways the modern man finds unfathomable. They were also, as the movie pointedly ignores, brutally cruel towards the commoners they considered inferior to themselves. A better film might've explored this nuance, that the Samurai were honorable and steadfast at the same time they were arrogant and cruel.
There is a scene in which the peasants making up the new Japanese army harass a young Samurai and cut off his topknot. This is played out simply as an unnecessary indignity heaped on an honorable man, but it could've been used for much more. It could've explored the fact that the soldiers were justified in ther hatred of the Samurai, that a military elite spending 1000 years ruling by the sword is going to provoke hatred and resentment.
The movie could've explore the fact modern industry and military power combined with the cruelty and arrogance of the Samurai could be some scary shit, or that the demands of efficiency in the modern market have their own cruelty and arrogance. Instead, we get handed the simple formula: Samurai good, modernity bad and are expected to swallow it whole. There was a good movie buried in here somplace, but this ain't it.