About 20 minutes or so into the bizarre European/Asian/Middle Eastern fusion cuisine that is “Last Knights,” Morgan Freeman delivers a speech as only Morgan Freeman can — the sort of blazingly eloquent, morally fiery declaration of principles that usually precedes a character’s righteous victory or his agonizing defeat. Freeman exits far too soon, but his presence is enough to momentarily jog your interest in this cut-rate, off-Hollywood debut for Japanese action helmer Kaz I Kiriya, starring Clive Owen as a medieval fighter who seeks to avenge his master’s death. Rapidly tilting into so-clever-it’s-stupid territory, the story hinges on the sort of dramatic plot twist that exists mainly to delay the inevitable bloodletting for as long as possible, though when it finally arrives, the mayhem is engaging enough on its own workmanlike terms. Following a brief theatrical window, the Lionsgate release should swing and parry its way into respectable VOD play.
He may be killing it on Cinemax’s “The Knick,” but Owen has floundered of late in his search for a big-screen vehicle worthy of his talents, and “Last Knights” doesn’t exactly buck the trend. Set in an unnamed empire governed by ancient feudal traditions and utopian racial politics, the story centers on Raiden (Owen), a skilled warrior who serves as loyal manservant and wise counselor to the nobleman Bartok (Freeman). Like other lords of the realm, Bartok is invited to pay his respects to a corrupt authority figure named Gezza Mott (Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie, fey and loathsome), but refuses to cough up the expensive bribe that is expected of him — an insult that leads to a physical altercation and ultimately earns Bartok a death sentence from the all-powerful Emperor (Iranian actor Peyman Moaadi, “A Separation”).
It’s at this point that Bartok gives his deeply stirring speech: In full view of his prosecutors, he gravely rebukes himself and his fellow colleagues for having allowed Gezza Mott to abuse his power and extort money from others. It’s a rare instance of rhetorical force in the screenplay (by Michael Konyves and Dove Sussman), and Freeman plays his martyrdom moment to the hilt. In a particularly cruel twist of the knife, it’s Raiden himself who is forced to administer the fatal beheading, cutting down a master he’s grown to love the way a son loves a father. Not long thereafter, Bartok’s house is dismantled, his family is dispersed, and his men (a motley assortment of faces including Cliff Curtis, Giorgio Caputo, Val Lauren and Michael Lombardi) are dismissed. Raiden, racked with guilt and despair, sells his precious sword — a gift from Bartok himself — and falls into a wretched yearlong spiral of boozing and whoring, driving away his faithful wife (Ayelet Zurer) in the process.
Meanwhile, Gezza Mott locks himself away in his heavily fortified compound, yells insults at his personal bodyguard (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and is unable to shake the feeling that somehow, somewhere, his misdeeds are going to come back to haunt him. (Ye think?) Since it’s a foregone conclusion that the movie will end with Raiden and his men exacting bloody revenge, there’s something simultaneously exasperating and enjoyable about the lengths to which the filmmakers go in order to throw us off the narrative scent, patiently building to a revelation (if that’s the word) that borrows not just a narrative trick but a crucial image from the climax of “The Usual Suspects.”
“Last Knights” is a fairly ludicrous mystery and a so-so action movie, but it’s nonetheless been constructed with an earnest attention to detail that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The red herrings, for all their obviousness, are lined up with meticulous care. There’s a similar deftness to the staging of the combat sequences, which proceed methodically from one obstacle to the next as our heroes storm the castle, neatly immersing us in the logistics of how to lower a drawbridge and penetrate an enemy lair while evading detection for as long as possible. In its narrative structure and its climactic action, the movie means to impress upon us the value of collaboration and perseverance, as well as the pleasure of seeing so many seemingly disparate puzzle pieces coming together as a unified whole.
Unfortunately, it’s “Last Knights” that itself never fully comes together, as Kiriya — a proficient enough craftsman whose action chops were apparent in his 2004 debut, “Casshern” — fails to bring his vision of ancient times to fully coherent life. Admirably colorblind though it may be, the international casting (which includes the welcome presence of South Korean veteran Ahn Sung-ki as Gezza Mott’s wise father-in-law) somehow manages to seem at once calculated and arbitrary; the effect is that of an old-fashioned Europudding production with slightly more exotic garnishes than usual. Owen, though watchable as ever, never gets a compelling grip on a character who barely exists in two dimensions. And while d.p. Antonio Riestra effectively captures the mood of the picture (shot in the Czech Republic) with a steel-gray palette in scenic widescreen compositions, some of the f/x work is glaringly subpar: You’ve seen winter-themed screensavers with more persuasive-looking snowfall.