Perhaps the most striking thing about Kazuaki Kiriya’s third feature and his English-language debut, Last Knights, is the unexplained world he ushers us into. The location scout must have had a ball searching out the beautiful Gothic courtyards, vaulted cathedrals and ancient houses in which the action takes place.
CGI fills in the rest, creating a curious quasi-Ottoman/Medieval-European realm – a fantasy cross between Istanbul and London with palaces, city walls and steeped paddy fields thrown in for good measure. Inhabitants of this unnamed nation are equally cosmopolitan, which accounts for the myriad of accents flying around.
Within this world we meet Lord Bartok (Morgan Freeman), nobleman and landowner, and his utterly loyal warrior attendant, Raiden (Clive Owen). As the film opens Bartok receives a missive from the Emperor’s corrupt first minister in the capital, Gezza Mott, played with dastardly brilliance by Aksel Hennie (Headhunters, Uno). Knowing the message is a thinly veiled bribe and realizing that if he plays along he will eventually lose his land and position anyway, Bartok decides it’s time to take a stand.
But this is no minor undertaking. An incident with Mott sees him brought before the Emperor (an enjoyably Machiavellian Peyman Moaadi). Having delivered the obligatory rousing speech, which incites the action of this archetypal tale of revenge, courage and honour, Freeman thankfully exits the drama. (Is it just me, or is he crying out for his very own Magnolia-Cruise kind of moment, an actor in desperate need of reinventing himself as a screen presence?)
There is some dangerously clunky dialogue, especially in the opening scenes, but then Raiden takes centre stage and the film gets going. The camera never tires of focusing on the warrior’s face as conflicting emotions flicker over it and Owen exploits this nicely, playing with the frictions inherent to his character – a former untamed man of violence and addiction whom Bartok took under his wing and transformed into the loyal honourable soldier we meet at the start of the film.
He is a man of emotion and integrity yet there is a rabid killer-wolf lurking within. When everything is taken away from him, will the darkness rise again? This question and the tension in his character is essentially what drives the drama right up until the inevitable but very entertaining sword-wielding sequences of the film’s finale.
Aksel Hennie’s Gezza Mott is also a wonderfully hateful antagonist who, having indulged his darkest desires is wracked by Stalinesque paranoia and driven to more desperate and underhand behavior. He even comes complete with creepy pooch, like a Medieval Blofeld, and frankly Hennie should at least be on the casting couch for the next Bond film – he’s hugely entertaining as the spineless bad guy. There is also good support from Cliff Curtis as Raiden’s right-hand man, Lt Cortez.
Cinematographer, Antonio Riestra, has an eye for an almost out-of-place arty shot, but Kiriya muddies the waters with unwarranted slo-mo and endless cumbersome dialogue about honour and the warrior code. The repetitious structure of the narrative is also strangely unsatisfying and Last Knights desperately needed to be half an hour shorter. Crisper and more succinct, this would have been a fun if forgettable romp, but the many enjoyable elements become weighed down by the workmanlike narrative and just too many minutes on the clock.
Last Knights is released in UK cinemas on April 17th