Welcome to a deeply unspecific, randomly multi-cultural feudal fantasy world.
Evil crazy minister Gezza mott (Aksel Hennie) achieves a particularly nasty revenge on feudal lord Bartok (saintly Morgan Freeman) for a snub, leaving Bartok’s son-like retainer Raiden (Clive Owen) to execute his beloved master, dissolving the whole Bartok clan and “disavowing” all his warrior caste knights. Instead of swearing bloody revenge, the former Bartok men fall into lives of menial work and – in Raiden’s case – dissolute drunkenness. Still, it takes years to finally convince even the paranoid Gezza mott (don’t ask me about the names in this one) and his main retainer Ito (Tsuyoshi Ihara) that no revenge is coming from these guys. If only they knew they’re in another adaptation of the Chushingura (or the 47 Ronin, if you prefer), just one that doesn’t bother to mention this pretty damn obvious source.
It’s also not a very good adaptation of said source, and not just because redoing this stuff again means inviting comparison with some of the best jidai geki to come out of Japan, though this surely doesn’t help the film much. Nor is its case improved by the fact it doesn’t really have any new perspective on its material. Which points at one of the film’s main problems, its inability to effectively transplant a story based in a very culturally specific idea of honour and duty (seriously, the philosophical concepts in the samurai code we translate to honour and duty are only very partially related to the way these words are, for example, used in the idealized version of chivalry of the European Middle Ages) into a new environment. In fact, it doesn’t even make much of an effort to do this. Instead of creating a world around the characters where their actions make sense, the film just wildly throws together signifiers of Japanese, Korean and European middle age cultures without ever seeming to spend a thought as to how these things can actually fit together to shape the characters into a form the plot needs. It’s just incredibly superficial, and robs the whole proceedings of any way to anchor its characters emotionally or culturally, and consequently never achieves much of an emotional effect; let’s not even speak of the film making any kind of argument about the things it is supposedly about.
That doesn’t stop Last Knights from making gestures pretending profundity, of course, but if there is anything to find, it is as vague as the world the story takes place in. This superficiality, as well as the hollow pretences of depth, are not exactly a surprise coming from director Kazuaki Kiriya, whose two earlier films both suffered from exactly these problems, as well as from the draggy pace Last Knight shares. Those films also featured surprisingly stilted acting from a theoretically good cast, and this, again, is what you get here from definitely capable actors like Ihara, Owen, and Morgan Freeman, who emote with all the passion of very sleepy old men. Only Aksel Hennie seems to be awake but then, where his on screen partners’ are bored, he’s just terrible; of course, given Kiriya’s dubious success with the other actors, and the atrocious dialogue he has to sprout, I suspect it’s really not his fault.
What did surprise me about Kiriya’s work here is how visually unimpressive the whole film is. Standing quite in contrast to the eye-popping insanity and visual intensity (as I see it, Kiriya’s one possible strength as a director) of Casshern and Goemon this is drab, static and clad in the usual washed-out greyish colours that spare contemporary filmmakers the need to think about the use of colour in their movies, but I spare you, imaginary frequent reader, my usual rant about that this time around.
I’m rather more disappointed with Last Knights than I would have expected, probably because on paper, a multi-cultural (South Korean and Czech production, actors from all over the world, a Japanese director) fantasy version of the Chushingura sounds like a wonderful idea to me. If only the execution weren’t so dispiriting.