Friends. Countrymen. Britons.
There are so many places (read: quips) I’d like to begin. From the guy who dated an already older-ish Madonna. Comes the prettiest Arthur you’ve ever seen (seriously, the header image is about as perfect as you can get). In Legend of the S-Word (I’ll take S-words for $100, Alex). A Tale of Two Shitties (more on this soon). Or maybe, A Tale of Two Directors. And the later truly felt like the embodiment of the experience you’re subjected to. And not just because I was one of Arthur’s subjects (a-thank you), but because all Guy Ritchie films subject you to an experience, his experience. Say what you will about the man (Madonna jokes aside and really, at this point long dead, so I’ll take that one back), but he has a style and it is unique in the industry. One might argue that he’s one of only a few modern-day auteur directors—the case could be made. It’s also a style that I appreciate, and it’s mostly his directing that attracted me to the film, despite a questionable marketing campaign and largely fade-into-the-crowd trailers. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword delivers on the Guy Ritchie promise. But it didn’t feel like it for the first ten minutes, and I got worried. And then it appeared, that quintessential Ritchie vibe that I first grew to love in Snatch, one of the all-time modern greats as far as I’m concerned. But at times, it vanished, and when it did, the film languished. For a director to truly be auteur, their touch needs to be on everything, throughout a film. Auteur does not imply one who phones in the ‘boring parts’ or can’t be bothered to give the same level of attention to detail, excitement, or aesthetic flair to the entire film. But luckily for audiences everywhere, the good outweighed the bad—as you’d expect in a movie about King Arthur.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Director: Guy Ritchie
Release Date: May 12, 2017
After several onscreen text lines of background catch us up to speed, we get ten minutes of visual background story, basically outlining that magic exists, there’s a King named Uther Pendragon (good, played by Eric Bana), a mage, or wizard, Mordred (bad, played by someone unimportant) and they are doing battle. Whereas previously the worlds of men and magic had coexisted peacefully, now they don’t. Funny how we always get that turn, isn’t it? Uther is revealed to be even more powerful than the crazy powerful and evil Mordred because Uther has Excalibur, the legendary blade—and here, it is not only a symbol, but a literal item of power that gives its yielder superhuman abilities. Good triumphs over evil. Men are happy. Or are they? Maybe not Uther’s weasely brother,Vortigern, played to apt weasely perfection in this moment by Jude Law.
He wants power for himself, and what younger brother wouldn’t? So, somehow, despite Uther having just saved the land from certain doom, and despite his wielding Excalibur, Vortigern convinces more than enough men to rise up against his brother and claim the crown for himself. Except, good Uther is able to help his son, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) escape in the nick of time. You can all take a deep breath—things are going to be OK.
This was the worst part of the film. It was necessary backstory to create the plotlines that would drive all action, but it felt uninspired, and like just that: necessary backstory—a cursory gesture to allow things to progress, otherwise what plot would we have? And here’s where I come to A Tale of Two Shitties (Directors). In Shitty One, things are just that, shitty. It’s dark, smog-riddled, orphan-infested, suffers from elevator music immersion, and is just plain uninspired.
Ah, but in Shitty Two, things are golden. Once we get past our introductory chapter and meet toddler Arthur (having been saved by Uther by sending him down river in a boat, a la Moses—an interesting parallel, and one I’m not sure was intended or not; there is a ‘born-king’ plotline that suggests prophecy and manifest destiny, so it’s conceivable—we are treated to a delightful, and classic Guy Ritchie segue that ages Arthur from toddler to grown-ass-man.
Wherein Shitty One was populated by bland, CGI, giant-army-bearing elephants (straight out of The Lord of the Rings), that are too familiar and too going-through-the-motions for us to care, along with a score that is that faintly tribal, shrill, trilling that began back with Gladiator, carried on through Troy, and has never really left films that deal with historic battle elements, Shitty Two is populated with brilliantly constructed sequences that add up to a minute or two of enough details to let us know exactly who Arthur has grown up to be and what wrought him. The terrible scoring vanishes and is replaced by trademark, tightly synchronized and emotion and pace-driving scoring that’s just wonderful.
The mood, nay atmosphere in Shitty One had me down. Visiting Shitty Two brought me all the way up. Unfortunately, this cocktail was prescribed for the whole film. Sequences of condensed events centering around Arthur, as well as action sequences, were brilliant uppers, mellowing my edge and letting me float blissfully along as the record player had me nodding my head and tapping my feet. But then I’d visit Shitty One again, usually sequences focused around Jude Law’s Vortigern, and man, popping those downers had me contemplating movie suicide: that’s right—walking out of the theater (and I hadn’t felt that impulse since Suicide Squad—yes, that bad). These sequences were marked by unnecessary plot elements driven by terrible acting (sorry Mr. Law, but I take back what I said about apt weasely perfection), unnecessary CGI elements, and scoring that lacked imagination and emotion both. The only thing that precluded my imminent movie suicide was knowing, like any good addict knows about any good dealer, there would be another upper delivered soon.
And sure, enough there was, but, switching to the other half of my analogy, that of two directors, one seriously has to wonder if Guy Ritchie actually directed the whole film. It felt like he was handing off the reins to a second unit director for half the film, a director who even made decision in post. Here, one is forced to consider the distinct possibility of studio interference: action tent-poles need bigger better creatures, monsters, and CGI elements, no matter if they make no sense, don’t fit the film, are unoriginal, or just lazily crafted. Studio executives care not for these facts, they care for dollar bills, and dollar bills come to explosions. Just look to the other summer blockbuster movie featuring King Arthur, Transformers: The Last Knight, a Michael Bay film. What defines his films? Explosions. Bigger, badder cgi monstrosities.
Guy Ritchie delivered films like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and the incredible Sherlock Holmes franchise revival films. None of these films suffer from segments of utter indifference, and when Ritchie is given the chance to revive another classic property, King Arthur, the man, the myth, the legend, he suddenly phones it in for half the film? It’s perplexing to say the least. But, as already indicated the good is stronger than the bad and saves the film. Certain aspects of Legend of the Sword are Ritchie to the core, almost perplexingly so: Guy Ritchie seems to be at his most natural, potent self when assembling a cast of British miscreants and allowing them to hurl clever banter at one another and others while montaging action over it. It’s his go-to move. Some guys prefer the back rub, Guy Ritchie prefers clever dialog that wins the audience to his side. But at what point in Arthurian legend or history did Arthur sound like was off the shadier streets of London? At what point did medieval villains tell their henchmen to “do their fucking job?” Much as with Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, you can say that Ritchie makes the property his own. As much as his hand seems absent for stretches, the rest is covered in his greasy fingerprints: just saturated. And this is good, because if not for that frenetic energy created by Ritchie’s directing and editing decisions, the film would be a foregone conclusion: there’s never any doubt of where events are taking us. It’s all too transparent and according to script, as it pertains to good versus evil and how that plays out.
And if it feels as if I’m spending a lot of time speaking about the director and not the acting, it’s intentional. The acting doesn’t drive this film. It’s writing and directing do. Many of the actors adequately handle their roles as best they can, but standout performances are absent. Triumph happens through editing, shot creation, and writing. There is humor enough to keep the audience smiling, including one or two moments that again, feel out of place in the Arthurian vehicle, but feel right at home in the Ritchie product.
Surprising too, is that little in the film feels cheap—sure, some of the CGI doesn’t feel as good as the best examples you’ll see, but none of the film’s issues seems to stem from penny-pinching on the back end. Rather, they probably spent more than they needed to on some of the CGI work, which, all in all, adds up to a rather perplexing mystery. Why a tale of two shitties? We may never know and we may never need to: you should still see the movie. The good is more than good enough, and I suspect that if you do, and if your friends do, and if word of mouth overcomes the marketing campaign that did the movie few favors (my theater was mostly empty), we may get a sequel. This has all the markings of an introductory chapter to a franchise. And franchises are so hot you guys, seriously. We may just get the movie this movie could have been; a King Arthur tale that Guy Ritchie directed for its entirety, not just the parts with pretty Charlie Hunnam. Mr. Hunnam is a good enough actor, but his scenes here that steal the show involve some of the better (if not the best) CGI present in the movie; there are a couple of battle scenes revolving around just what makes Excalibur such a lovely magical item that are wowing; even the most cynical, snigger-happy trolls in my audience were verbally exclaiming their approval.
And about that picture: what with Arthur’s trendy fashion sense (think Brad Pitt or Jason Statham in Snatch), he’s nearly a runway model transplanted to pre-medieval England. His clothes are impossibly white for having lived on the streets and grown up in a brothel, in every sequence. Even when he’s put through the paces, his hair is perfectly styled as if he were about to shoot the cover for GQ or Men’s Health. Holy cow, when he took his shirt off I nearly forgot the bad CGI. And then again when he took it off again. That mandy (man-candy) was being peddled throughout. Everyone knows, if you’re going to hook your addicts with uppers and downers, at some point, their munchies are going to dictate candy please, now. Happy to oblige.