The glum revenge epic Last Knights is a timeworn tale that, when you squint, looks like the future. Established Hollywood stars Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman are there onscreen clutching swords and intoning dramatic pledges of fealty and death. But the money for the film came from South Korea — and in the movie business, money is always the A-plot.
In Asia, South Korean culture reigns supreme. Its pop albums and makeup styles are even cropping up — illegally — on the streets of Pyongyang. Last Knights is Seoul's first big step toward making movies for the rest of the world. It's shot in English, filmed in the Czech Republic and every frame of it is a round-the-globe mash-up. The director, Kazuaki Kiriya, is Japanese. The producers are from America. And the actors come from everywhere: from Norway to Nigeria, plus Israel, Iran and Italy. The cast is so colorful that the costumers outfitted nearly everyone in simple, dramatic black, with a taste for armadillo-shouldered leather capes that look like Don Quixote wandered into a BDSM tailor in ancient Tokyo.
Last Knights is set in the feudal past of a land that never existed. The young emperor (Peyman Moaadi, imperious but with a streetwise Paul Muni snarl) rules over several villages that seem to be only a horse-ride away. Local leader Bartok (Freeman) is known for his deadly warriors and moral superiority. He could also be known for his white, walrus-tusk mustache, but no one onscreen does a double take at its majesty. His fighters are called the Seventh Rank, and each has sworn an oath pledging courage, devotion and good conduct. The script justifies its diverse cast (not that it has to) by explaining that these three qualities are so rare that Bartok had to assemble his team from every creed, color and faith — kind of like Simon Cowell concocting a pop act.
Bartok's men always speak the truth. And they always speak in complete and formal sentences, which scriptwriters forever tediously imagine is the way people talked in the past. (I wish a linguist would convince writers that ancient warriors were more apt to communicate in shoulder bumps and bawdy jokes.) They're such goody-goodies that during sword-fighting practice, a lieutenant (Cliff Curtis) unleashes a cheap attack as a lesson about what lesser soldiers — not them, of course — might do.
Last Knights is as steeped in the samurai code as a 400-year-old cup of tea. But their idealism no longer works in a corrupt empire. Kiriya is interested in honor, particularly in how good men preserve it when the wicked want to make them kneel. (As for good women, the script isn't interested in them at all — the only females here are passive wives and daughters, who take turns being thrust into peril, plus the wailing ladies whose moans compose the soundtrack.) When the emperor's tyrannical third-in-command Geeza Mott (Aksel Hennie) summons the Seventh Rank to the palace and orders them to buy him an expensive gift, Bartok refuses to bring a bribe. Bartok's retainer Raiden (Owen) advises the old man to give in to Mott's greed just to keep the peace. Yet Bartok worries, correctly, that if he allows himself to submit to a shakedown, their empire will eventually own his lands and his soul.
Bartok's straight-spined rebellion leads to a bloody showdown and an even bloodier second act that finds the Seventh Rank expelled to the capital to scrape by as smiths, bartenders and fishermen. Raiden has dissolved into an abusive drunk — and to him, public dishonor is the worst punishment imaginable. (Save for the emperor's shrugging willingness to kill his enemies' wives and children, too, an order he tacks on as casually as if he's super-sizing his fries.)
That the Seventh Rank will regroup and seek vengeance is as predictable as the wrap-up of one of D.W. Griffith's moralistic epics. This is a story that's been told, and told again, since the dawn of fiction. What's surprising is how much Last Knights feels like Griffith's ghost could have directed it. The sets have an old-fashioned extravagance that looks like Notre Dame fused onto Shangri-La. Even the mail comes in thick cowhide envelopes that fall to the floor with a thunk. And while Kiriya can shoot a sword fight, his preferred pace is glacial. He wants to make sure the audience feels every plot point: He asks an ethical question, has his characters debate it and then draws out the comeuppance — a process that ticks by so deliberately that we have enough time to lean forward, lean back, roll our eyes and then get sucked in again despite ourselves.
In an era where most of our screen heroes belong on a therapist's couch, it's refreshing to watch a film that believes in the power of good behavior. Integrity is the Seventh Rank's best weapon. Yet the closest thing it offers to a smile is when bad-guy Mott thanks a subject for presenting him with a gold-rimmed mirror. Leaning into his reflection like a preening Disney queen, he simpers, "Of all the gifts I have received, this is my favorite." Not only have the South Koreans revamped the industry's global business model, they've invented a new genre: grim camp.