There’s a moment in “The Last King,” a Norwegian historical action flick, where farmers turned royal bodyguards Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro, “Masteren”) and Torstein (Kristofer Hivju, “The Fate of the Furious”) improvise a story for the baby they’re tasked with protecting, and heir to Norway’s throne, Hakon Hakonson (Jonathan Oskar Dahlgren). They’re taking shelter in an abandoned barn while a snow storm rages outside.
It’s a sweet sequence, if a bit on the nose, with a rare kind of heart not usually found in action movies. Oftebro as Skjervald and Hivju as Torstein both have a fierce physical presence, but they’re skilled enough actors to soften those edges. When they do, “The Last King” slows down and lets the tension break. There’s no threat and no conflict: just two men trying to calm an upset kid.
Even then, the movie has remarkable momentum. The numerous ski chase sequences have a hypnotic speed that carries through even in the quiet moments. They’re made even cooler knowing they likely happened in medieval Norway. “The Last King” is based on the exploits of the Birkebeinar, a rebel party formed in 1174 around a pretender to Norway’s kingship.
When the movie starts, it’s 1206 and Norway is ravaged by civil war. Gisle (Pal Sverre Hagen, “What Happened to Monday”), the king’s opportunistic stepbrother, poisons the king. As he dies, the king declares his illegitimate son, Hakon, heir to his throne. Little does Gisle know, the boy is guarded by Skjervald and Torstein, two stalwart warriors and farmers. Now on the run, the two bodyguards have to get Hakon back to Norway’s capital before he’s killed by Gisle’s men.
The unique setting makes for some exhilarating action, but it’s not all excitement. Gisle’s storyline is mostly a drag save for Kristin, the daughter of the queen, and her exploits (Thea Sofie Loch Naess, “Mogadishu, Minnesota”). But her hamfisted relationship with her brother, Inge (Thorbjorn Harr, “Karsten og Petra ut pa tur”) bores quickly. Gisle himself is a typical Machiavellian figure. He’s shallow, power-hungry and helped little by Hagen’s comparatively boring performance.
Archetypal villains aside, “The Last King” isn’t your typical action movie. It’s willing to sideline the action for some serious character-building, and never loses focus of its emotional core. The setting is unique and makes for the kinds of sweeping vistas reserved for serious epics. Jakob Oftebro and Kristofer Hivju have an easy chemistry that makes those central warm moments all the warmer, and the propulsive set pieces even more dynamic. When a movie as relatively quiet as this goes by so quickly, why not stick around for the ride? It’s more than worth the time.