“A battle for honor. A bloodshed for vengeance.”
Directed by Kazuaki Kiriya
Starring Clive Owen, Morgan Freeman, Cliff Curtis, Aksel Hennie, Ayelet Zurer and Tsuyoshi Ihara
The Ako incident was a historical event in feudal Japan, in which the forty-seven surviving retainers of Lord Asano Naganori took bloody revenge on the Imperial courtier who had their master dishonoured and executed. Fictionalised accounts of the event, known collectively as Chushingura, are a staple of Japanese literature, to the point that the true and fictional versions are difficult to disentangle. Hollywood finally copped to the story in 2013’s 47 Ronin. This film starred Keanu Reeves as the obligatory white character, although the rest of the cast was Japanese, and added fantastical elements. In 2015, a reimagining of the story was produced, with few Japanese cast and a mediaeval European aesthetic, but a Japanese director.
After a great war, an order of warriors emerged to protect an Empire, the Knights of the Seventh Rank.
Led by Commander Raiden (Owen), the retainers of Lord Bartok (Freeman) exemplify the code and honour of the knights in a time when they are in decline, with the Empire increasingly under the grasping hand of corrupt Minister Geza Mot (Hennie). Denied a bribe, Mot goads Bartok into striking him in order to have him executed and dishonoured, his retainers scattered and his family dispossessed.
Mot is convinced Raiden will seek revenge, and orders his own retainer, Ito (Ihara) to watch him. When Raiden spurns his wife (Zurer) and fails to react to seeing his master’s daughter reduced to prostitution, Ito is convinced that there is no threat. It turns out that this is what Raiden has been waiting for, and with the aid of Mot’s father-in-law his warriors break into Mot’s home. Raiden defeats Ito in a duel and executes Mot, then takes sole responsibility for the raid, accepting execution and leaving his second in command, Cortez (Curtis) to protect the restored Bartok clan.
What’s wrong with it?
What’s up with Clive Owen? I mean, really. Here he just mumbles his way through another script, seldom looking anything but vaguely startled.
Aksel Hennie’s Mot is a weak and ineffectual villain, and the supporting dramatis personae fail to provide much middle ground between the polar opposites of Mot’s craven bureaucracy and Raiden’s martial honour. Even the courtier who helps Raiden does so to save his daughter, rather than because anyone who isn’t invested in a military gentry sees a way to reign in the excesses of a corrupt minister without the use of main force. Maybe I’m just not that into revenge stories.
The female characters are significantly weaker than those in the Keanu Reeves version, and those were a painfully honourable wife, a painfully virtuous daughter and a ludicrously slutty fox-witch. I’m not even entirely sure that the names of Raiden’s wife and Bartok’s daughter are ever spoken. It’s also not clear why this specifically multi-cultural, apparently post-apocalyptic military elite still doesn’t allow women in combat roles, or positions of feudal authority.
What’s right with it?
The production design is beautiful. I particularly like the swords of the knights, which blend a western straight blade with a more oriental style of hilt, but the post-modern armour is also pretty nifty.
Morgan Freeman is the bomb.
How bad is it really?
Last Knights commits the cardinal sin of an action movie. It’s dull. There are a few decent fights, but Raiden’s apparent descent into dissipation never really grips. As a result, I basically stopped caring about the state of the Empire once Morgan Freeman wasn’t there anymore.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Morgan Freeman gives a barnstorming speech at his trial. It’s like Mr Smith goes to Feudal Washington.
What’s up with…?
- The resurgence of absolute patriarchy?
- Mot? It’s really not clear how anyone so obviously grasping and ineffectual ever rose to political office. Much less so why, after basically becoming Howard Hughes, he’d be promoted.
Production values – Last Knights has a beautiful and unique look. 4
Dialogue and performances – Morgan Freeman is amazing, but Clive Owen is… well, he’s Clive Owen, and Aksel Hennie fails to provide a capable villain presence. The bulk of the dialogue is functional, with only Freeman and, to a lesser degree, Curtis lifting it much above its deserts. 15
Plot and execution – It’s the story of the forty-seven ronin, done pretty much straight. Unfortunately, the middle act lacks tension because I actually don’t care if Raiden has fallen into dissolute ways. 7
Randomness – If Bartok’s daughter is forced into prostitution to survive, and Raiden didn’t really sell his sword, how is he able to drink that heavily? 7
Waste of potential – Last Knights makes 47 Ronin look like a masterwork by comparison. 18