Last Knights is set in a realm that’s generic even by the contemporary standard set by the muddy, humorless, gray-sheened period war films that often represent a self-conscious attempt to modernize the sword-and-sandal movies of the 1950s, and that often liken all of Europe to a small portion of upper-crust Caucasian Britain. In voiceover, a character describes the film’s timeline as taking place sometime after a “long dark period of the Great Wars,” and before you can guess the Crusades, this character says that these wars ushered in an empire that included all colors, creeds, and faiths. Probably not the Crusades then, or really any other discernably feudal society, and one briefly, promisingly wonders if that’s the point, if director Kazuaki Kiriya is suggesting that such regimes across various eras and cultures are ultimately united in their hypocritical pretenses of “honor,” which bolster a mass, self-annihilating sense of fealty to an almighty power.
It’s quickly revealed that Kiriya has no intention of staging a satire or a parable, as his mash-up strategy is just a particularly blatant and pandering attempt to court global audience appeal. The film features Asian, Middle Eastern, European, and American actors, as well as sets that wed English and Japanese castles with Roman coliseums, but with the exception of that bit of ass-covering narration, nothing is ever again made of the astonishing variety of people who seem to occupy similar social strata within one land without friction—or, at least, without friction that’s inflamed by those particular differences. This color blindness isn’t progressive, but boldly indifferent to the sorts of political tensions that massively inform any country of any era, and this wishy-washiness is especially gross in the context of a story meant to glorify a storybook fantasy of knighthood.
Last Knights is another macho celebration of honor and self-sacrifice, of fighting for “freedom” because someone else told you to, that’s devoid of any acknowledgement of the inherent irony of that ideology. This film’s neurotic code of conduct is best encapsulated by a character who insists that “the wounds of honor are self-inflicted.” When Bartok (Morgan Freeman), a nobleman, is killed by his EveryKingdom because he refuses to yield to a venal minister’s (Aksel Hennie) corrupt tax demands, Bartok’s general, Raiden (Clive Owen), concocts an elaborate revenge campaign to uphold his master’s beliefs, which don’t appear to be any different from the evil minister’s. And lest we miss the severity of the minister’s self-absorption, he’s portrayed by Hennie with a pointedly fey sense of physicality that often serves as medieval-movie shorthand for “queer.”
Admittedly, the film has more obvious issues, namely, that it’s so leisurely paced, so unduly preoccupied with the shallow proclamations of its characters, as to feel at least an hour longer than its already padded 115-minute running time. Kiriya delays the action that’s a requisite of this kind of film, putting off the climax for so long that it eventually scans as a puny non-event, despite its competent staging. This dilly-dallying gives one plenty of time to wonder how Owen, an excellent actor, wound up in such a dull, low-rent fusion of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, First Knight, and Gladiator.