Imagine if Three Men and a Baby was remade with just two guys, a baby, a battle axe, and a bunch of arrows. Despite its exceedingly generic Americanized title, The Last King has a little something different to offer action-weary movie watchers. The story is set in a time and place — 13th century Norway during the country’s civil war — that is probably unfamiliar to U.S. audiences. And while much of the hand-to-hand combat and royal treachery will prove cliched to some, they are presented with some fun tweaks and an occasionally sentimental tone that doesn’t always mesh with the hard-hitting action.
The Last King is set in 1204 and is inspired by actual events in Norwegian history. King Hakon Sverresson (Benjamin Helstad) is killed in a plot hatched by power-hungry younger brother Gisle (Pal Sverre Hagen). Everyone assumes the culprit is Gisle’s older brother Inge (Thorbjorn Harr) in a move to seize control of the country, and Inge is subsequently jailed. However, Gisle’s path to power remains blocked thanks to a surprise wrinkle: the king has an illegitimate son with a stronger claim to the throne.
Fortunately, the infant had been whisked away by Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and Torstein (Kristofer Hivju), a pair of soldiers loyal to the king. Norway is in the midst of a civil war between the Birkebeiners (the faction of peasants that Skjervald and Torstein belong to) and the Baglers (the religious, aristocratic group that wants to seize control of all of Norway). As a result, Skjervald and Torstein must dodge danger at every turn — not to mention the harsh elements of the Norwegian mountains — as they work to protect the infant future king of their nation.
The Last King — known as Birkebeinerne in its native Norway — is directed by Nils Gaup, who already has a couple of historical Norwegian films under his belt (1987’s Pathfinder and 2008’s The Kautokeino Rebellion). This latest offering is pretty ambitious in scope and features some truly stunning vistas. Most of the action/chase sequences among the Norwegian mountains incorporate skis and sleighs, which adds a neat dimension American audiences don’t often get to see outside of Bond movies. The camera work and action choreography during these sequences are the highlight of the film.
The script by Ravn Lanesskog, however, could’ve used a stronger sense of focus. The clearest path would’ve been to simply tell this story from Skjervald and Torstein’s perspective as they struggle to become makeshift caretakers for a future king. (Skjervald, in particular, ends up having personal motivations to care for the infant.) While the movie does include one strong scene in which the pair pacify the child by telling him a fairy tale, the movie spends too much time jumping between the various other factions, which detracts from what should be the movie’s central relationship. I don’t mind trying to develop the Baglers or dedicating time to Gisle’s dastardly plot, but those scenes tend to come off as half-hearted and undercooked.
Oftebro makes for a solidly noble hero and his Skjervald is gifted with the movie’s only emotional character arc. The “biggest” name here is Game of Thrones scene-stealer Hivju, who brings the same humor and crazy-eyed verve to this film. The rest of the cast provide capable support as the story marches toward a predictable but still satisfying conclusion.
The Last King is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 37 mbps. The first thing that jumps off the screen is the resplendently white, snowbound palette found in the majority of the film. These sequences — whether they’re panoramic establishing shots or kinetic action sequences — are absolutely the standouts in this clean, crisp presentation. The disc doesn’t fare nearly as well when the lights get turned down (during nighttime sequences or for interior shots within castle walls) because the somewhat murky black levels don’t offer the best separation you’ll ever find.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Norwegian track packs an impressive punch. That is especially evident whenever swords start clanging or horses gallop across the screen, the latter of which is supported by subtly effective subwoofer work. This is also a dynamic track that will keep your head on a swivel as arrows fly from one rear speaker to the next. Ambient/background noise is not as prominent as you might expect, given that the bulk of the movie takes place in such a harsh outdoor environment. But that’s probably a good thing since aggressively whooshing winds might have proven to be too distracting. There is also an English language dub available.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Interview with actor Kristofer Hivju: (9:33) The enthusiastic actor talks about what attracted him to the project (it was the heart of the story, specifically the focus on two men fighting impossible odds to care for a baby) and shooting the film in Lillehammer. Hivju seemed to especially relish some of the ski-bound action sequences and even enjoyed the challenge of having to improv around an unpredictable infant.
The Last King Music Video — “Bifrost”: (3:49) Norwegian singer Helene Boksle performs this lilting tune and the video — which also comes with English subtitles — intersperses clips from the movie.
I’m sure The Last King plays fast and loose with Norwegian history to serve its dramatic purposes, but the movie is nevertheless a reasonably entertaining action romp that offers a welcome view at a different part of the world.