Tuesday, 23 May 2017

King Arthur - Legend Of The Sword

A Mage A Day Helps
You Work, Rest and Play

King Arthur - Legend Of The Sword
USA 2017 Directed by Guy Ritchie
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Any similarities between this movie and the legend of King Arthur are purely coincidental.

Remember that famous moment in Arthurian legend where giant, armoured elephants taller than a couple of skyscrapers attack Camelot with giant, spiky clubs they hold in their trunks? Yeah, me neither. Yet... here they are.

I’m not a fan of gangster cinema but the few films by Guy Ritchie I’ve actually seen - the two Sherlock Holmes films and The Man From UNCLE reboot (reviewed here)- were pretty cool movies, as far as I’m concerned. However, when I saw a trailer for King Arthur - Legend of the Sword a month or so ago it looked absolutely horrendous and I made a decision, there and then, to trust my instincts and stay away from the movie. However, I then found out that Daniel Pemberton was re-teaming with Ritchie after his fantastic score for The Man From UNCLE and, furthermore, while King Arthur - Legend of the Sword was taking a critical drubbing, Pemberton’s score was being singled out as the best thing about the movie and was doing very well in the Amazon music charts (and not just the soundtrack part of it). Since I also knew there was already a CD release of this score... well, I had to go and see this after all. And, I must say, as far as Pemberton’s score goes, at least... I wasn’t disappointed.

To be fair to Ritchie and his excellent cast and crew... the trailer for the film makes it look much less appetizing than it actually is. King Arthur - Legend of the Sword is actually a huge slice of fun and its greatest tragedy, in my eyes, is that it looks like it had a truly great movie waiting in the wings in some alternate cut. However, it’s not without its huge problems and I think the final edit probably hinders the movie way more than it should.

The great thing about this film, the primary strength, is its cast. They’re all very good. Charlie Hunnam is very likable as Arthur, Jude Law makes an excellent villain in King Vortigern, Eric Bana is excellent as Uther Pendragon (for the few minutes he’s in it), British treasure Neil Maskell is wonderful as the likeable guy who ends up as motivation fodder at a critical point in the story and the Merlin substitute, played here as a female mage by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, who I last saw in the unbelievably cool I Origins (reviewed here) has absolutely the most amazing screen presence in this film. Even Mr. Posh Spice gets a halfway decent moment in the proceedings.

The dialogue isn’t bad either and the opening ten minutes, pre-credits, and the credits themselves are very strong sequences. Pre-credits is the big ‘elephant’ scene I mentioned above, as Uther saves everybody from the evil attacking Camelot before heading to meet his own fate in the betrayal of a close friend and the titles themselves play out over Arthur growing up in a brothel and becoming ‘street savvy’ in Londinium. Unfortunately, this is all the strongest stuff in the movie and, as much as I admired Ritchie’s technique and the way in which he uses the syntax of splicing film to create a finished result, I really think it goes into overdrive too quickly and too long here.

Oh, and the music... as I said before, Daniel Pemberton’s score is absolutely top notch and I expect to see it listed in my top five scores at the end of the year. Truly astonishing work and this guy is definitely one to watch. I’ll probably never watch this movie again in my life but the CD soundtrack is going to be on my turntable for months, when it arrives, I’m pretty sure of that.

So, okay... lets talk about the two things I think let the film down a little.

This doesn’t stick to Arthurian legend at all. There’s no Merlin or Morgan Le Fey... although I’m sure that in the subsequent films that Ritchie was planning on releasing before this flopped big time at the box office, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s unnamed mage character would have taken on one of those two mantles. There’s no Guinevere, no Lancelot and other bits of legend are played with fairly hard so they almost become unrecognisable. Also, this is set in a time, according to the script, when magicians were plentiful and roamed side-by-side with normal people... so we have, to an extent, fantastical elements not uncommon in something you might expect in the heroic fantasy genre. That being said, I’ve no idea why giant snakes were so prominent unless Ritchie loved the John Milius version of Conan The Barbarian as much as I did because some of the magical sequences seem to be a little at odds with common sense or follow through here.

Another main difference is that King Arthur, once he’s learned how to wield Excalibur without fainting and lapsing into unconsciousness, can do magic stuff himself... drawing on power from his sword in a similar manner to the way Michael Moorcock’s famous character Elric Of Melnibone gains power from his black, soul sucking sword Stormbringer. So, you know... big changes to Arthurian legend there. Alfred Tennyson might be twirling poetically in his grave at this point.

The other thing is Ritchie’s cinematic language here. Remember those scenes in Soderbergh’s The Limey where he cuts between two different scenes of the same two people to make up one conversation? Well Ritchie does it all the time and while I have observed this trait in him before and while he always, here included, does it very well... using short edits of alternate situations and also just generally cross-cutting between scenes to tell the story... here he seems to be doing it without any thought as to how the abundance of such an approach affects the whole piece. Like he and the editor were on some kind of really wonderful drug while cutting this movie and... it works great as a means to an end but I wish he’d have tempered it back because, honestly, it really gets tiring after just five minutes, let alone a whole movie's worth of fast cutting. Seriously, was there any shot in this film held for more than a few seconds? This really is MTV generation editing taken to a point way farther than it maybe should have been allowed to get.

You need some pauses...

If you look at some of the most iconic action movies of all time coming from the likes of Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone or even Steven Spielberg, one of the things you’ll notice straight away after you’ve seen just a few is that they are all about the pausing and build up between action sequences. You make the action moments stand out by pitching them against something which anticipates and teases those sequences. In this film, however, even the long dialogue scenes, of which there are many, are cut together like hard hitting action scenes so, when the three or four action sequences do come along, quite apart from being hard to follow, they are diluted and lose literally all impact because they have nothing to be seen in contrast to. Now it’s obvious from this that Ritchie has the coverage on the various scenes because he keeps cutting back to them.... so I wish he’d have just ramped down from the ferocious editing in some of those sequences a little more and let them play out without chopping about so much because, overall, the film gradually wears you down to a point where the final battles feel like a complete anticlimax and you really do feel like the movie just needs to end soon, to be honest.

And it’s such a shame because Ritchie is so obviously a great director and I wish he would have just reeled himself in a bit because I’m sure, with the footage he already has, this could have been a truly groovy and successful movie. However, it isn’t... the people have spoken with their wallets and, alas, it’s time to move on from this somewhat unique take on King Arthur and his Merry Men. No wait, that’s not right. Although it does seem like the film is trying to be more Robin Hood with magic party tricks and less King Arthur at some points.

So... you know what. If you’ve got nothing better to do one evening, I’d still say go and have a look at King Arthur - Legend Of The Sword because, frankly, you can learn from and be somewhat entertained by a spectacular failure as you can from a film which totally gets everything right. It’s not a great film but it’s not without its moments and, over and above all the mess that this movie is, it’s still got some kick ass, killer music by Pemberton which is really worth the price of admission. The movie is a bit of a write off, to be sure but... there are things work salvaging from the wreckage if you feel you’ve got the time.

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