Being a somewhat original historical action movie for people who really like skiing.
Yes. This. I am bringing back Friday Night Netflix, a very sporadic feature I used to do around the time I first started this blog. Back then I wrote these as a way to review movies I’d seen a bunch of times that I figured were underseen but easily available on Netflix. Now I’m expanding that to include movies I’ve never seen before, also easily available on Netflix, whether I like them or not. And no, Netflix doesn’t pay me to write these, but they certainly could and I wouldn’t mind.
For The Last King, a Norwegian and Irish co-production about an interesting period in Norway’s (very interesting) history… I guess I kind of liked it? It’s more like an 80’s buddy movie with delusions of historical epic than it is like a Kingdom of Heaven or even the show Vikings. The production is detailed and the action is coherent, but the story is about as straightforward and characters as archetypal and broadly sketched as an 80’s or early 90’s Schwarzenegger vehicle. None of this is bad, but wrapped in a package that lacks any particularly standout performances or “holy shit” moments, it might not be propulsive enough to hold the interests of people who can see a better version of basically the same stuff elsewhere on Netflix (The Last Kingdom for instance).
That said, this movie has some novel action (skiing fights!) and takes place in an unfamiliar setting. Norway and Scandinavia are usually explored in terms of the Viking era and rarely any other era. This movie takes place in the 13th century during a civil war period. You don’t really need to know much background, but this movie sent me down a wikipedia rabbit hole of Norwegian history so hey, interesting stuff.
Why yes, that IS Tormund Giantsbane!
The movie is about two agents of the King and a baby. It is kind of like a less humorous but classic action comedy setup, really. They are Torstein (Kristofer Hivju) and Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and it’s their job to escort the King’s secret infant son somewhere safe before the bad guys, called Baglers, find him. These two are “Birkebeinerne” (the film’s alternate, better title) and that seems to be a kind of opposing political faction, loyalists I guess, opposing the Baglers. Along the way, Skjervald’s whole family is mercilessly killed by the Catholic knights that back the Baglers (the church but not Christianity itself are painted in a pretty negative light here) and the King is murdered by an asshole. Mostly the plot unfolds as Torstein and Skjervald try to outrun the church knights that are hunting them in order to kill the King’s heir and secure a Bagler victory.
If that sounds complex, don’t worry because it isn’t. Characters broadly declare their motivations and have somewhat repetitive exposition scenes to establish very basic plot points. The script is very, very stripped down. Game of Thrones this isn’t. But I can’t really fault it for not being a morally ambiguous tale of ambition or whatever, I think it’s fine that it’s a throwback movie. I do kind of wish it had more to sink your teeth into though. That didn’t have to be complicated inversions of loyalty and circumstances, but I definitely felt my attention wandering around 2/3 of the way into it. What’s here isn’t very dramatically engaging and it’s too restrained to be all that memorable in terms of quotable dialogue or exciting action.
The action scenes kind of swing between “competent” and “somewhat engaging”.
I guess I mean to say that the action scenes should have been treated more like showpieces. Instead, the movie seems mostly uninterested in them. There’s actually not that much action in the movie, and most of it is realistic in the sense that people get tired and fights are over fast. There’s some satisfaction in that, but after half a movie watching Torstein carrying around his big double-bladed axe, you definitely want to see him use it more than he does.
One place the movie does deliver the goods is in its handful of action sequences and chase scenes that center around skiing. Torstein and Skjervald are skiing gods and they zip around shooting arrows and hiding behind horses and it’s pretty cool. There’s even on big scene where a bunch of dudes on skis attack mounted warriors.
Kind of blurry but it goes something like that.
Skis as modes of transportation in and out of battle are a thing I don’t think has ever been done in an historical action movie before. That definitely works in the movie’s favor, especially for people who really dig the sport. However, it often feels like the only real trick up this movie’s sleeve and they potentially over-rely on it as a way to sell the action.
All in all, this is far from a bad movie. It’s just a little too rote to recommend enthusiastically unless one of its elements is interesting enough or if you just really like the genre and/or Norwegian history. If they’d leaned heavier into any one of the elements that make it up, the buddy throwback stuff or the historical intrigue or the novel action scenes, it would probably have been a hidden gem.
I gave it 3/5 stars on Netflix.