Skip to main content

It’s a table. You sit at it.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
(2017)

(SPOILERS) I can certainly see why Guy Ritchie’s latest has flopped. Audiences weren’t interested in what he was selling, and what he was selling was very clear from the trailers (it’s the same with Ghost in the Shell; all these post-mortems offering a list of reasons why really boil down to whether those two-and-a-half minutes are appealing, not whether Charlie Hunnam’s a star or Scarlett Johannsson can open a movie). Much weaker movies become hits every year, so it was his take on King Arthur – which, like everything Ritchie gets his paws on, immerses itself in laddish camaraderie – not it being the umpteenth retelling of Camelot per se, that put them off. And I can relate to the disinterest; I want my Arthurian legends to be steeped in just that: legend. Make them too immediate, relevant or – as was the case with Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur a decade ago – mundane, and the audience will give them a wide berth. But, for all that I’m not a fan of the approach Ritchie took, this is still a Guy Ritchie movie, which means stylistically there’s much to enjoy in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword despite yourself. Plus, it could have been much worse; we could have been enduring Bryan Singer’s Excalibur remake instead.


Ritchie apparently (according to a recent Empire interview) had an Arthurian tale brewing for about a decade (“I’m an Englishman. I grew up with King Arthur and Sherlock Holmes”: indeed, perhaps we can soon look forward to his epic account of fish and chips). By the sound of it, it consisted of the most rote elements of Legend of the Sword; his orphan growing up in a brothel and hanging with the boys before recognising his calling. The fantasy element wasn’t there (this tone-deafness previously did for King Arthur, a choice that seemed perversely self-destructive – albeit Jerry Bruckheimer is never given to throwing money away if he can help it – given The Lord of the Rings was at its zenith at the time).


The whole origins story bit isn’t, per se, a problem; whatever Ritchie’s tinkering, the sword in the stone is, by definition, an origins story, the rise of a king, one who discovers, and must come to terms with, their power. The issue is rather that it’s guilty of perversely butting heads with a trope audiences are heartily sick of; spending an entire movie having the hero denying the call (and in not terribly interesting fashion, tormented by visions until such a point he can wield Excalibur effectively). The movie’s biggest crime, then (not that audiences would have premeditation of this), is that it’s guilty of not getting to the point. Even worse than the hero protractedly denying their destiny Legend of the Sword is structurally designed to serve as teaser to starting the “proper” story in a movie to come.


And this is WB’s folly: assuming they can simply manufacture a shared universe and that there will be a demand for it, because that’s what Marvel has done. It may well turn out to be Universal’s folly too, with their “Dark Universe” (getting a novice director to kick off your franchise isn’t necessarily the safest of bets, less still initiating a “horror” universe that’s actually an action-blockbuster universe; it could even be regarded as ham-fisted when you’re getting low budget horror movies – Get Out – grossing more than The Mummy is likely to for a negligible cost). All the studios, besides Disney – of course – are so at a loss over how to repeat that Marvel magic that they’re putting the cart before the horse, making assumptions about long term properties that are unlikely to be realised (even WB’s HBO, putting forward various Game of Thrones prequel series, appear to be flogging an expired badger; they should be initiating that next big thing rather than hedging their bets). How else do you explain a Transformers universe (a movie devoted to Bumblebee?!) or Sony’s Spiderman’s Supporting Characters universe with likes of Venom and Black Cat & Silver Sable (particularly ludicrous as Spidey is now a distinct and separate entity in the Marvel-verse).


It’s this thinking that saw WB latch on to Joby Harold’s multi-part shared Arthurian pitch, envisaged to feature a movie for each of the main characters (Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot etc.), explaining why some of the big names aren’t in here, and also why, by assuming there will be an appetite for a $200m shot in the dark, they’ve managed to eschew what might have been their greatest assets (I mean, seriously, not including Merlin? You could start with Merlin and not include Arthur more confidently). The result is the worst of all worlds, a movie built on the assumption of further instalments that, while it has nominal closure, hasn’t even come close to getting to the good stuff (pulling the sword from the stone is the only iconic moment here; the Lady of the Lake is present, but used in a manner that seems like an afterthought, particularly as it occurs at Arthur’s most irritatingly petulant moment; he throws away his sword because Neil Maskill snuffs it. It is, at least, the one occasion in the picture where Ritchie is willing to operate by dream logic, in the fashion of John Boorman’s Excalibur).


Harold has a Robin Hood screenplay coming out next year, with Tarron Egerton. It was initially titled (yes, really) Robin Hood: Origins. You can see where this is going (or isn’t, if it has the reception of Legend of the Sword). Harold’s Arthurian universe had the supernatural element Ritchie’s lacked, hence the finished picture’s mashup of elements. It’s ironic that, for all that he claims it’s foreign territory, Ritchie handles the fantasy part of Legend of the Sword with consummate skill. He cites Excalibur as a favourite, for its “mystical quality” (so how did he so completely not get why it worked and the appeal of these legends?) He admits that fantasy “is completely out of my wheelhouse”, yet the various elements, from oversized beasties (“Guy doesn’t want completely fantastic beasts”) to beckoning Syrens are visualised with care and investment. But one has to wonder at his stated desire to offer “something people won’t have seen” (why not just dive into the actual stories, then, there’s more than enough John Boorman didn’t even sniff at, rather than overlaying the well-worn Moses plot?), unless he means having Arthur as a contemporary bruv, complete with leather trousers and sculpted hair.


While Ritchie has delivered a movie that’s frequently as stylistically engaged as anything he’s done, he himself admitted he lost the movie in the edit, and it shows. When Legend of the Sword works, it’s usually because it’s adopting his trademark faux-lad posturing; Arthur comes from a place of privilege and destiny and is only moonlighting as one of the lads (Ritchie himself is a posh boy turned geezer. As such, it’s interesting that both he and his ex-producer Matthew Vaughn’s most recent movies concern an ostensibly “working class” character whose revealed heritage invites his ascension to an elite throne; it’s a coded reversal of the duos actual behaviour, and a reflection of their designer charades).


Ritchie’s strengths, as are Vaughn’s, are most evidenced by his ability to convey action musically, rhythmically and kinetically. When Legend of the Sword engages with such sequences, it’s a blast, from Arthur’s growing up montage, to recounting an incident with Viking traders that could have come straight out of Snatch (the tale isn’t very interesting, even though its crucial, but you nevertheless get into the knockabout verbiage) to Edgar Wright-inspired “what if?’ sequences (“And you’re going to say…”), all of which show his facility with editing, playing with time, repartee and sound to an energising degree. Daniel Pemberton delivers a fine score (maybe not in the league The Man from U.N.C.L.E., his previous collaboration with Ritchie, but very little is), and there really are few filmmakers around right now with the grasp on fusing score and image to such propulsive effect (I’d probably give Vaughn the edge over Ritchie, but only because he has a better track record).


The weaknesses of Legend of the Sword are most highlighted by how long it feels. It’s only two hours, but it draaaaaags. That’s partly rejecting the call, but it’s also partly not caring about anyone. Should we give a stuff about Maskell’s Backlack getting stabbed and bleeding out for about an hour? We certainly shouldn’t end up resenting him, as we do, when Arthur proceeds to chuck his sword. Charlie Hunnam’s okay. He holds the screen, just about. But there’s nothing special about his Arthur. He’s just a guy with a gang, and it ultimately weakens the stew, for all the seasoning Ritchie throws in. Hunnam no doubt had good intentions (if he’s watched Excalibur more than 40 times) but he can only play the character his director requests of him, who is devoid of any kind of regality or spark.


Aiden Gillen’s best feature is his character name (Goosefat Bill), but otherwise he has reached a place where he elicits a sigh of tired familiarity whenever arrives on screen. There’s a character called Kung Fu George, played by Tom Wu, whose most interesting aspect is his very-Snatch name (and his eventual Sir-ness). David Beckham’s cameo has been much remarked upon, negatively, but it really isn’t so distracting, prosthetic hooter aside. Geoff Bell’s Mischief John stands out amongst hissable henchmen.


Jude Law (who appears to be the latest victim of de-aging – its de rigueur right now, albeit fairly unobtrusive here) makes a decent fist of evil King Vortigern, but he’s undercooked until the moment he sacrifices his daughter, when there’s suddenly a palpable sense of the extent of his dedication. Alas, but by that point the movie’s almost over. Maybe there was more in the two hours Ritchie excised to try hone it down, but it’s always more interesting if you’re as invested in the villains as in the heroes. One of the few unqualified successes is Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s Mage, who essentially takes the Merlin role (but was, I was surprised to learn, intended to be Guinevere) and prods Arthur along magically.


The picture needed to be tighter, certainly. It also needed to embrace its (anathema to Ritchie or not) fantasy more fully. Arthur’s journey to the Blacklands is intriguing until you realise there’s nothing there but big rats. It’s disappointing that the wood nymphs are the product of his hallucinations… it seems. But who knows, there’s a trio of slithery tentacled Syrens in the basement. 


They’re the greatest visual success of the picture, and it bears noting that the effects generally, given CGI in every other blockbuster released is so very variable, are really first rate. The Syrens elicit exactly the right mix of the repellent and erotic, and ought really to have been Ritchie’s starting point for the movie’s tone: the seductive allure of power and its corruptive, bloating, corrosive quality. When it comes to the power of Excalibur – something of a one-ring effect that appears to harness dark energies, much as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange did – it’s something of a standard superhero bit, but if you’re aren’t wholly rejecting the picture as an Arthurian aberration by this point, you probably won’t mind too much.


Ritchie has experienced two flops in a row now, and there’s no doubt Disney won’t let the same thing happen with his upcoming Aladdin (I for one am intrigued to see how his style mashes with the property – it surely can’t be as somnambulant as the beat-by-beat translation of Beauty and the Beast). King Arthur: Legend of the Sword certainly isn’t the unfairly ignored minor gem The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is, but neither does it deserve ignominy. If you can get on board with Ritchie’s predilections, there’s a mostly good time to be had here, lulls aside. It’s entirely misjudged, but it’s also good fun. Just a shame that, for an intended saga, the invitation to “Now, tell me a story. Tell me every detail” is left hanging.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. This is the greatest review of all times. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Don’t get tipsy. We can’t have you hiccoughing in the coffin.

The Avengers 4.2: The Murder Market
Tony Williamson’s first teleplay for the series picks up where Brian Clemens left off and then some, with murderous goings-on around marriage-making outfit Togetherness Inc (“Where there is always a happy ending”). Peter Graham Scott, in his first of four directing credits, sets out a winning stall where cartoonishness and stylisation are the order of the day. As is the essential absurdity of the English gentleman, with Steed’s impeccable credentials called on to illustrious effect not seen since The Charmers.

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver (2017)
(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.