'Last Knights' a Well-Mounted But Spiritless Storm on a Castle

Directed by: Kazuaki Kiriya; Runtime: 115 minutes
Grade: C-

47 Ronin isn't an inventive title by any stretch, but at least there's something conveyed through the wordage used, emphasizing the state of trained warriors in feudal Japan who have lost their master or experienced dishonor. It takes some effort to devise a title that's less creative or informative than that, but Casshernand Goemon director Kazuaki Kiriya manages to make it happen with Last Knights, his own under-the-radar adaptation of the historical legend built around the forty-seven warriors who sought to reclaim the honor of their lord. The hope, naturally, is that there's more imagination poured into the quasi-samurai epic itself than reflected by the title, and while that does end up being the case to a certain degree, it's not for the right reasons. Robust casting choices, a cleverly indistinguishable time period, and a degree of confidence in the lack of medieval action throughout the majority of the picture can't overcome the leaden, grim bones that comprise its skeletal rendition of an oft-told fable.

It's worth noting that Last Knights does end up being a slightly sharper and more rewarding take on Chushingura fiction than the Keanu Reeves vehicle from two years prior, 47 Ronin, which goes in a number of bizarre directions for the sake of Hollywood bluster. Instead, this version sticks more intimately to the story's core elements while making smarter alterations, focused on the loyalty of a regiment of skilled warriors -- led by a commoner-turned-leader, Commander Raiden (Clive Owen), with a checkered past -- sworn to protect the vassal realm overseen by Lord Bartok (Morgan Freeman), whose relationship with the greedy empire hits a wall after they demand a hefty bribe to reaffirm his clan's allegiance. Defiant, Bartok refuses to kowtow to their demands, which leads to a public display by the Emperor and his minister, the mustache-twirling imp Gezza Mott (Aksel Hennie), that diminishes the reputation of the lord and releases the warriors of their duty. Despite Raiden reverting to his prior careless and drunken pursuits afterwards, the others methodically plan to reclaim their lord's honor.

Many positive and negative observations can be made about Kazuaki Kiriya's previous films, but one constant among them tends to be a shrewd and intricate eye for production design, something that carries over to Last Knights. He takes the snowy, stony atmosphere of the Czech Republic and transforms the realm into one separated from both earthly time and region, crafting a new cultural structure that's a melting pot of Japanese, European, and English concepts. That carries over to the attire as well: the streamlined armor and hilt-less blades wielded by Raiden and his men nail an intriguing balance of form and function, while the ornate robes and lustrous palace dressings of the oppressive imperial reign are reminiscent of something Tarsem Singh or Julie Taymor might orchestrate in a restrained frame of mind. Crafting a grounded neutral setting like this that's still intriguing to look at isn't an easy endeavor, but the austere contrast between Clan Bartok and the Emperor's realm achieves that, if in a manner still reminiscent of other works.

Alas, those promising production elements merely go towards dressing up anemic, dated themes and shallow plotting in Last Knights, feeling more like the buildup of a videogame hero's progression to the big battle than a layered story of redemption, sacrifice, and tribute. Clive Owen works his rugged, enigmatic charm as Commander Raiden rather well, capturing both the atoned dignity of a sentinel and the down-and-out gristle of a defeatist hero, while Morgan Freeman gracefully telegraphs carefully-worded speeches of defiance against tyranny in his limited screen time. Despite the ways they accentuate the pride of the clan leader and the burgeoning darkness of the transformed antihero, they're still just working hard to bolster the blandly oppressive politics that are roughly as black and white as the lion's share of the film's visual aesthetic, where persistent dialogue about the stalwart preservation of honor manages to be both overdrawn and colorless.

By design, Last Knights revolves around the anticipation behind getting to how -- not if, but how -- Clan Bartok will reclaim their honor from the petulant minister, a manic and paranoid political villain who abuses both his power and his underlings. Despite the wait that Kazuaki Kiriya puts the audience though with Raidan's fall from grace, he admirably focuses on the stealth and subterfuge of a grand siege instead of dialing up the sword-clanking gravitas to compensate for the delay, telegraphing convincingly muted swordplay and archery only when it becomes necessary. That said, the energy of the action also never gets beyond moderate heights of spectacle, offering a subdued and predictable payoff for the bleak period following the warriors' dismissal. That's not just because of familiarity with the source, either: momentous duels go down between foreseeable opponents, traps and schemes go off without a hitch, and the ultimate price gets paid by those who almost seem destined for it. Everything's just dull in its credibility, a modest retread of medieval epic ground that clearly had the aptitude to accomplish more.

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