King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
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 audiences 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, this 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 Warner Bros’ 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.). It also explains why some of the big names aren’t in here, and 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 Maskell 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 conceits.
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 constituent parts, 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 soundtrack 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; ultimately, it weakens the stew, for all the seasoning Ritchie throws in. Hunnam no doubt had good intentions (if he’s watched Excalibur more than forty times) but he can only play the character his director requests of him, one who is devoid of any kind of regality or spark.
Aiden Gillen’s best feature is his character name (Goosefat Bill), but he has otherwise 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. At which point, there’s suddenly a palpable sense of the extent of his dedication. Alas, the movie’s almost over by then. 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 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 in the mode 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 meshes 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.