After watching Last Knights on Blu-ray, I decided to check out some of the cast interviews included on the disc. There's a genuine sense of enthusiasm from everybody involved, and almost everyone comments on how much they like script's central idea: telling an old-fashioned samurai story in a multicultural alternate earth version of the 14th century. Their enthusiasm is a little infectious, and I'm sure I would have gotten excited about seeing the movie if I hadn't just seen the movie. Unfortunately, Last Knights is a mostly-forgettable slog of a movie that undercuts its moderately interesting story with flat direction, limp performances and a bloated running time.
Bartok (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption) is the benevolent leader of a small kingdom within a vast empire. In recent years, the emperor (Peyman Moaadi, Camp X-Ray) has grown corrupt under the influence of his wicked minister Geza Mott (Aksel Hennie, Hercules), and Mott has grown rich by forcing the kingdoms under the emperor's rule to pay stiff taxes. At long last, Bartok has had enough. Despite cautions from the loyal Commander Raiden (Clive Owen, Closer), Bartok decides to defy the empire. As you might imagine, Bartok is not long for this world (though we get the impression that he knew he was in his last days regardless, as his health is clearly on the decline).
We're expecting these opening scenes to serve as the set-up for a tale of righteous revenge, but instead Raiden slips into alcoholism and becomes a shadow of his former self. He cheats on his wife (Ayelet Zurer, Man of Steel) with prostitutes, he insults his closest friends and he refuses to do anything to help Bartok's troubled daughter. How is it possible that this valiant commander has been so thoroughly broken by the loss of his master? Naturally, the film eventually works its way to scenes of battle and revenge, though I'll leave the specifics of how for you to discover.
You get the sense that this was supposed to be a bigger film than it turned out to be. The sets and costumes are genuinely impressive for a straight-to-VOD action film, but most of the digital effects are exactly what you'd expect from a straight-to-VOD action film. My guess: the film was shot on a decent budget, then the investors took a look and decided to minimize their losses. The truth of that story is irrelevant; the end result is we have an awfully inconsistent movie. The film's grim, overcast look is also unflattering – it's yet another misbegotten case of a filmmaker trying to use murky visuals to aid a grimly dramatic tone.
Despite Owen's behind-the-scenes enthusiasm, he seems uncertain of what to do with his relatively dull role. Raiden is a gloomy sort of guy who does his best to keep his true motives hidden, but Owen struggles to suggest anything other than gloominess. He has a strong natural screen presence, but he's not able to do much with it here. Freeman is considerably better as the good-hearted Bartok, but his role basically amounts to a glorified cameo. Oddly, Freeman narrates the opening scene and then departs from the film's soundtrack (otherwise filled with weary, Zimmer-esque riffs from Martin Tillman, Nicolas Neidhardt and Satnam Rangotra). The one truly bad performance comes from Aksel Hennie, delivering action cinema's 4732nd blandly effete villain who monologues ceaselessly while relying on his hired goons to fight the hero. This sort of part can be entertaining in the right hands, but Hennie's haughty line readings are just flat-out terrible.
Though the film was marketed as a big action movie, the “sword” part of this sword-n-sandal flick is limited to a brief opening skirmish and roughly 20 minutes of the final act. Most of it is merely functional, though there's an exceptional (if brief) one-on-one duel between Raiden and a rival commander (Tsuyoshi Ihara, Letters From Iwo Jima). Elsewhere, you get a handful of compelling dramatic moments and a whole lot of filler. I'm not sure who felt this film needed to run almost two hours, but either the time should have been used more effectively (perhaps fleshing out the supporting characters) or the film should have been trimmed down to a tight 90 minutes. It has all the narrative meat of a short story, but it's treated more like a sprawling novel.
This diverse alternate version of the 14th century (seemingly free of racism, but otherwise thoroughly mired in all the other social ills of the era) is intriguing, but that's ultimately little more than a briefly distracting distinguishing factor in an otherwise cookie-cutter genre flick. It's sad to see old pros like Owen and Freeman trapped in unremarkable dreck like this, but sadly, it's common to see once-esteemed (or even still-esteemed) actors trapped in some mediocre straight-to-video action flick. In the world of 21st century cinema, the bridge from Oscar glory to the Wal-Mart bargain bin is awfully short.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Year: 2015