King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (4/5)
When the first montage hit, I knew Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur film was going to be exactly what I wanted out of a Guy Ritchie King Arthur film. After witnessing the death of his parents, a young Arthur floats down a river, Moses-like, until he’s taken in by a brothel. In quick successive cuts and sped up shots, we see Arthur repeatedly getting the crap kicked out of him, train, get the crap kicked out of him again, train some more, and then start kicking the crap out of others. This wordless couple of minutes doubles as both training montage and character development--this version of Arthur is a rock hardened by the pressures of living in the lowest dregs of society. It also showcases some great visual storytelling that’s becoming increasingly rare in modern blockbuster films that are so often bogged down by exposition.
Hollywood has a long tradition of trying and failing to bring King Arthur to the screen, from the leaden musical Camelot my parents forced me to watch as a kid to the “respectable” 90s version First Knight to the Clive Owen starring film that drained the tale of its myth and magic--you know, all the good parts. The most successful King Arthur films are without a doubt Monty Python’s irreverent take and John Boorman’s surreal Excalibur. On some level, Ritchie imbibed the lesson from these two successful adaptations: if you’re going to tackle an oft told tale like King Arthur, then you’ve got to make it weird.
And the movie opens weird, with Camelot under siege by elephants the size of mountains. An evil mage Mordred has come to claim the lands of Uther Pendragon, but he is defeated by the king. The danger isn’t over, however. Uther’s brother, Vortigern, (here played by Jude Law) stages a coup, killing Uther and his wife, but letting their son Arthur slip away. (Never trust a young Pope).
When we finally meet adult Arthur after the frenetic montage, he’s more concerned with taking the piss out of his buddies and protecting the girls at the brothel than of staging a rebellion. Things change when Uther’s sword, Excalibur, reveals itself after years hidden under the tide. Knowing that Arthur is still out there and still a threat, Vortigern lines up all the men in the kingdom to try out the sword, hoping to uncover the last threat to his kingdom. After Arthur pulls the sword, he’s slated for execution, but the Vortigern resistance snags Arthur and takes him to their hideout in the woods to meet their leader and former Uther ally Bedivere.
The film follows the basic template of “the hero’s journey,” so you can imagine what happens from here. Arthur resists the call before finally meeting his destiny. By eventually accepting his role, he can unlock the powers of Excalibur, which in this version grant Arthur immense power up, like Cloud’s omnislash limit break in Final Fantasy 7 or Mario getting the star if you want to go old school. As with most blockbusters these days, the narrative is set on clearly defined rails, but it’s Ritchie’s flair as a stylist that makes the story work. Ritchie loves to intercut non-chronological sequences, using staccato editing to bounce back and forth in time. When Arthur refuses the call, Bedivere and a newly arrived Merlyn acolyte discuss whether to send Arthur to the “badlands,” a place of giant snakes and bats that would look great as a Manowar album cover. This moment is the katabasis or descent to “hell” portion of the journey, and it’s quickly montaged away at the same time that Bedivere and the mage discuss whether this dangerous journey is a good idea.
It’s this irreverence that elevates the material. Sure enough, King Arthur suffers from many of the problems that persist in fantasy films: a cumbersome backstory and the use of random magic as narrative device. But by quickly shuffling through these necessary but rote elements in the fantasy genre, Ritchie gets the audience straight to the good stuff.
And Ritchie gets plenty of help from others in this romp. His cast has an easy camaraderie with plenty of easy joshing between the characters. (With only a single female character of note, the mage who has only a handful of lines, this is a movie made by dudes about dudes and for dudes.) Jude Law once again reminds us at how damn good he is at chewing scenery. But Ritchie’s biggest ally might be composer Daniel Pemberton, who previously worked with the director on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Instead of solely relying on medieval signifiers in his music, Pemberton makes use of clipped percussion, which perfectly compliments the film’s rapid fire editing. “Growing Up Londinium” treats every sound like a drum, even the shallow breathing that functions as just another instrument.
King Arthur could have been just another Lord of the Rings knockoff, but Ritchie avoids this pitfall by injecting a bit of verve and energy. Sure, he’s influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien, but he’s also pulled in Sergei Eisenstein inspired montages, his early crime films, video games, Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, and heavy metal album art. The common complaint against Ritchie as a filmmaker is that he favors style over substance. That might be a legitimate critique if we’re talking about art house cinema, but when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking style over substance is exactly what we should be aiming for. (And if you truly believe there’s lots of substance in today’s superhero saturated marketplace, then you need to get out more). While he started out making indie crime stories, Guy Ritchie might actually be most in his element making sleek, fun blockbusters.
Unfortunately, it looks like King Arthur bombed on its opening weekend, so don’t expect King Arthur 2: Merlyn’s Boogaloo. Perhaps more disappointing is that critics savaged the film despite the fact that it looks and feels different than the unending stream of blockbusters we’ve been getting these days. (Plenty of critics liked to mock the name of one of the film’s major locations, the city of Londinium, apparently ignorant of the fact that this was the actual name of London starting in 43 AD). Still, let’s hope that Ritchie gets a chance at helming some more big budget films on the studio’s dime. I think up next is the live action Aladdin film about a charismatic, street-smart criminal who becomes royalty. It sounds a little familiar. Anyway, Ritchie’s King Arthur will be heaped upon the open grave of failed franchises, but like the legend itself, I have a feeling it will once again be resurrected...probably on basic cable.