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Last Knights

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // June 30, 2015
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted July 3, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

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 Casshern and 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.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Whether someone will find Last Knights to be a striking cinematic experience will depend on their tolerance for austere palette choices, as a great deal of the film's photography comes rather close to almost black-and-white sensibilities in its saturation levels. The sleek dark armor of the Bartok clan against snowy landscapes and stony architecture offers a lot of intriguing contrast moments in Lionsgate's 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfer, while subtly warm skin tones peek out from the stark setting. Torch and candlelit sequences in imperial treasure rooms and taverns do reveal some warm orange glow, though, which brings out more robust dimensionality and vividness. Detail holds its own in tight close-ups on the mostly scruffy warriors, while the shimmering intricacies and comparatively rich colors of the imperial robes are properly robust and tangible. The film's digital, low-color cinematography struggles with looking flat and washed-out at points, though, and black levels lean more grayish than they likely should. Overall, it's a stable, textural, but unremarkable HD experience.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track lacks some precision and oomph in areas where it should probably carry more, but it conveys the desires severity and restraint of the quasi-medieval atmosphere well enough. Verbal clarity has no problems when, say, Morgan Freeman addresses a quiet echoic chamber and belts out defiant proclamations, but other streams of dialogue in more muted situations -- especially with foreign-language individuals speaking in English -- straggle behind. Sounds of warfare are, as described in the review, intentionally somewhat undemonstrative to achieve a degree of realism, but even the controlled clank of blades and body contact are relatively thin, though perfectly clear and free of distortion. Subtler effects like the clank of coins on a wooden table and the whoosh of an arrow into the ground are nuanced and convincing, though, and a few stronger ones like the shattering of glass and the slam of an iron gate are fierce. Music commands the bulk of the surround activity, but a few elements -- like the banging of an alarm gong -- traverse the entire surround stage. English and Spanish subs are available.

Special Features:

Behind the Scenes of Last Knights (22:03, 16x9 HD):
Instead of separating the content into a cluster of 3-4 minute bits to pad out the quantity, Lionsgate have lumped all the pertinent topics into one extended press-kit featurette. Director Kazuaki Kiriya, Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman, and many other members of the cast and crew offer their insights through interviews while a smattering of behind-the-scenes shots emphasizes the topics being discussed, ranging from the fight choreography and costume work to making the international cast as the warriors of the Bartok clan into a solid regiment. What's key here is the honesty of those involved: there's a congratulatory tone about working with the director and the premise, sure, but all the folks involved present earnest enthusiasm about Last Knights.

Lionsgate have also included a brief before-and-after Look at the Visual Effects of Last Knights (5:04, 16x9 HD) that mostly focuses on inserting landscapes and the grandiose palace, while the collection of raw Interviews used for the behind-the-scenes featurette -- typically 3-4 minutes in length -- pad out the features. A Trailer (2:33, 16x9 HD) rounds things out. An Ultraviolet Digital Copy slip has been tossed in with the package.

Final Thoughts:

Oddly enough, Kazuaki Kiriya's take on the 47 Ronin mythology reminds me of two recent cinematic adaptations of the King Arthur legend: Clive Owen's gruffness as a leader and the pragmatic angle of Antoine Fuqua's adaptation of the material, and the contemporary polish applied to medieval aesthetics and the redemptive renegade angle from Jerry Zucker's First Knight. Despite being well-made, the few distinctive elements of Last Knights -- its aesthetic refinement and the stealth-oriented nature of its finale -- get drowned out by a cumbersome feeling of deja vu towards its well-tread story and stiff themes of honor and sacrifice. Lionsgate's Blu-ray looks and sounds solid enough, and the collection of extras are about as familiar as the film's premise itself. Worth a Rental for the performances and the subtle, attractive bursts of action, but that's about it.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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