I’m not ashamed to say that Kevin Costner’s very American adaptation of Robin Hood (the Prince of Thieves, not the one In Tights) is one of my earliest memories of really loving a film. Who wouldn’t want to live in a tree-house community, sword fight with Alan Rickman for the honour of your beloved or have Christian Slater as an illegitimate half brother? And that theme song by everyone’s favourite Canadian, Bryan Adams? Such emotion.
With that said, I do like an old fashioned good vs. evil epic, ideally in a medieval setting, with chainmail, bows and arrows, and some Brian Blessed-worthy facial hair. Oh, and of course…Morgan Freeman. It would stand to reason, then, that Japanese director Kazuaki Kiriya’s Last Knights – an action-filled period tale of samurai-like morality – would fit the bill.
Freeman’s wise and mysterious sage, Azeem, was the first time I encountered the great man on the big screen (or VHS, rather). Sadly, Last Knights won’t go down in the annals of history as a classic and neither will his ridiculous facial hair. Like a trophy wife, the film looks reasonably promising at the outset but you soon realise there isn’t a great deal of substance beneath the surface.
The dulcet tones of a Morgan Freeman voice-over is a great way to start any film, and here he tells us of the Seventh Rank, a band of fearless warriors who live by a strict code of “absolute devotion” to their master. Accosted by a band of foolish and inferior adversaries in a forest, there is real-time and slow-mo slashing, swooping and general ruthlessness that tells us these guys mean business.
The Rank are led by Raiden (yes, same as the Mortal Kombat character), a monosyllabic and monotone Clive Owen who does a lot of brow-furrowing and staring meaningfully off-screen througout. He acts as ‘retainer’ to nobleman and landowner, Bartok (Freeman), and, like the piece of plastic and metal used to keep your teeth in place, provides support and protection wherever necessary for his liege. The alarm bells, and death knells, start ringing for Bartok as he takes Raiden for a walk down memory lane in the ol’ family graveyard and passes on his special sword, both literally and figuratively, to his young(er) padawan. Uh oh.
Bartok is summoned to “the capital” to report to the Emperor and in turn pay a bribe to the corrupt, power hungry and whimpering Gezza Mott (Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie – superb in Headhunters, he does not cover himself in glory here). Bartok stands up for his principles and duly pays the price after showing that he, too, is pretty handy with a blade. I imagine Freeman appreciated being put out of his misery at the end of Act I but unfortunately without his character the film thereafter lacks much character.
In Act II Raiden falls off the wagon in dramatic fashion in “the capital” – in case you hadn’t guessed this city is not given a name, and that was frustrating. Avenging the injustice done their beloved Bartok is the name of the game in Act III where the body count gets a bit out of control.
It is unfortunate that Last Knights rhymes with last rites. If I had the time or inclination I’m sure there is a witticism of some kind to be made there but I just don’t have it in me. As seriously as this film wants to take itself, it is hard to do so when watching it. Although the inclusive Rank brings together people of any colour, creed and faith, very little effort is put in to developing any of the characters and in the words of James Brown, this is a man’s, man’s, man’s world. None of the female cast, which includes Ayelet Zurer and Shohreh Aghdashloo, amount to anything more than grieving windows, cooks and prostitutes which is a shame.
Filmed in the Czech Republic, some of the film’s visuals are impressive and the dark greys and blacks, as well as the unrelentingly cold (even indoors) works well in creating a feeling of menace and hardship – it’s just a shame we care so little for those slicing and dicing each other as we get to the end. One thing you will be amazed by, however, is how far a body can walk after its head and shoulders have parted company. Seriously.
This review can also be read here at OnTheBox.com!