King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

2018 #15
Guy Ritchie | 126 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

After years of making fundamentally similar movies, director Guy Ritchie found renewed success reinventing Sherlock Holmes for Warner Bros. I presume that’s directly responsible for the studio tapping him to kickstart this long-gestating project: a series of films inspired by the legends of King Arthur. Unfortunately for them, plans for a six-film series were scuppered when this initial entry went down like a lead balloon with critics and consequently was a box office flop. Nonetheless, some people who I think are worth listening to reckoned it was actually pretty good. Turns out… eh…

Set in a vaguely-defined historical Britain (the capital is called Londinium, but the king resides at Camelot, which is… somewhere else…?), Legend of the Sword begins with King Uther (Eric Bana) being deposed by his scheming brother Vortigern (Jude Law), with only his young son Arthur escaping. Arthur grows up in a brothel and on the streets, going from a weedy kid to… some kind of, like, gang boss type figure, I guess? Basically, we’re in familiar Guy Ritchie territory: lads up to criminal hijinks with a London accent, only now in medieval costumes. Anyway, long story short, Excalibur — the eponymous sword — reveals itself stuck in a stone, every young man is forced to try to pull it out, which obviously Arthur succeeds at, marking him out for death by Vortigern but also as the true king to those who remain loyal to Uther, who now have a Robin Hood-esque underground army — and so they begin a Robin Hood-esque campaign against Vortigern. Seriously, it wouldn’t take too many tweaks to make this as passable a Robin Hood film as it is a King Arthur one.

King Arthur and his merry men

So, to no one’s great surprise, if you’re looking for a broadly faithful adaptation of Arthurian legend then you’re out of luck here. There are obviously famous bits of the legend thrown in — the aforementioned Excalibur and its stone; the Lady of the Lake pops up too; and… um… other than that it’s pretty much just people’s names, really. I don’t know how much critics were hoping to see a more recognisably Arthurian tale, but I have to wonder if this massive deviance from the well-known stories of the eponymous hero is at least partly responsible for the film’s poor reception.

Part of why I wonder this is that, if you approach Legend of the Sword less as a King Arthur film and more as a Guy Ritchie-flavoured fantasy movie, there are bits of it I think are really, really good. Some of it’s great, even, like an efficient and exciting montage that shows Arthur growing from child to adult. Or any other time there’s a montage, really — that’s the best one, but others are equally as effective. Second best, for instance, is one where Arthur has to go on a quest in some alternate dark dimension or something, battling giant bats and other such nasties. That’d be the whole of act two in other films, or at least a significant action sequence, but its basic content is all so rote — so Ritchie instead burns through it in a montage, which feels like a nod and a wink to the audience: “you know how this goes”. Editor James Herbert certainly gives his skills a workout making these sequences fast, clear, and cinematically thrilling.

He's gonna need a montage

Of course, if you really dislike Ritchie’s trademark style then him slapping it on the fantasy genre isn’t necessarily going to enrapture you. Reportedly the project was pitched to the studio and cast as “Lord of the Rings meets Snatch” and they’ve pretty much delivered on that promise, transposing Ritchie’s modern London laddish schtick onto medieval Londinium plebs. Personally, although I’ve somewhat tired of his recognisable approach in a contemporary setting, the temporal disjunct was a fresh enough variation for me, breathing new life into both Ritchie’s MO and fantasy tropes.

Unfortunately, for all the verve of his own style that Ritchie injects, there are also bits that typify CGI-blockbuster blandness — the final fight is a nothingy blur. The speedy, montage-driven style also allows for only so much character development. What time there is gets focused on Arthur and Vortigern, which I suppose is appropriate enough, with a large supporting cast fighting over the scraps. It seems obvious to me that a mysterious female character known only as “The Mage” was meant to be revealed as Guinevere (a conceit broadly nicked from the Jerry Bruckheimer King Arthur, I think), and indeed that was apparently nixed in post-production. I guess they thought they could bump it to one of the five sequels… which now aren’t happening.

Come and 'ave a go if you think yer 'ard enough

My final three-star rating is maybe a bit harsh, but then maybe I’ve been too generous with my fours lately (or always). If Legend of the Sword had been able to carry through on the impetus of its best bits then it may even have been looking at a full five stars, they’re that good, but it doesn’t come together as a whole. It’s not the failure mass opinion painted it as, but it’s not quite a success either — it’s an interesting “good try”.

3 out of 5

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Pacific Rim (2013)

2014 #62
Guillermo del Toro | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Pacific RimThe names writers choose for their characters can sometimes tell you a lot about a movie. Pacific Rim is the kind of film that has characters called Raleigh Becket, Stacker Pentecost, and Hannibal Chau.

This is a film about giant monsters invading Earth, and we fight back with giant robots. It has the logic of the Japanese movies, anime and art that inspired it rather than any basis in the real world. Which is fine — del Toro has said it was aimed at 11-year-old boys (hence the “for over 13s” rating, of course), and it slots pretty neatly into that world. Which means it should also cater to a good many “adult” genre fans, which does make it flopping in America a little surprising. I suppose the lack of a recognisable brand name is a deciding factor in that market now.

Stand out features include blunt, functional, over-explanatory dialogue delivered in largely second-rate performances, but which at least carry us through the story solidly; and fights that are moderately exciting, but could do with zooming out to give a proper sense of scale, not to mention some variety in their primary black-and-blue colour palette. There’s a whole featurette on the Blu-ray about how hard they worked on conveying scale. Oh. Didn’t come across for me. OK, the giant robots didn’t move super fast, but it still felt quicker than I’d expect from something of that extreme size.

Perhaps the problem lies in how the film was obviously made for 3D — not because stuff’s poking out at you all the time, but because of shots that are clearly meant to have great depth, but where everything is in focus. For 2D it could probably do with a shallower depth of field, and maybe this is where the scale went awryRobot rescue — it was the 3D that added depth and height, and without that (or, as I said, an adjustment of focus to compensate) it’s all a bit… not flat, but not big either. That aside, it is beautifully shot, with excellent lighting.

Yet, for the easy criticisms, Pacific Rim largely entertains. Compared to most of the blockbuster fare targeting 11-year-old boys these days, it’s a positive triumph. Heck, compared to the other films for that age group that star giant robots, it’s Shakespeare. Similarly the music, by Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi, is a little obvious but also suitably fist-pumping, which at least renders it easily enjoyable.

Goodness knows where the mooted animated series and confirmed sequel are going to go with the world that seems so wrapped-up here — but hey, at least this one told a complete, self-contained story. It might fall short of excellence in many areas, but it’s an exciting, fun thrill ride nonetheless.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.