KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD
With its domestic gross of less than $15 million against a reported $175-million budget, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword tanked at the box office this weekend, an outcome that should surprise exactly no one. Just how many treks to Camelot is one expected to make in a single lifetime?
Yet as it did a couple years ago with the underwhelming response to Ritchie’s terrific The Man from U.N.C.L.E., my heart breaks a bit at the collective lack of interest, because the director’s latest is frequently a ton of fun, and far less “been there, done that” than a certain Marvel sequel with a talking raccoon I could mention. True, Ritchie’s re-imagining of this swords-and-sorcery saga is practically a cinematic comic book of its own, casting Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) as a traditional Reluctant Hero with a sadistic nemesis (Jude Law’s Vortigern), an indestructible weapon (Excalibur, natch), and a posse of lower-case avengers serving as special-skills backup. (Among them are Djimon Hounsou, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and Aiden Gillen, the latter fulfilling the genre requirement of featuring at least one Game of Thrones veteran.) But while King Arthur has clearly been designed as a superhero adventure in chain mail, it’s also every inch a Guy Ritchie movie, and perhaps the most consistently enjoyable one since 2000’s Snatch.
Heaven knows there’s grandeur on display, with the opener boasting marauding elephants to give King Kong the shakes, a mid-film detour of Arthur battling Princess Bride-y Rodents of Unusual Size, and the satisfyingly silly – and awfully convenient – climactic appearance of a giant serpent. (There’s also an Excalibur-fueled massacre that leaves our hero panting with exhaustion for a full 20 seconds, which feels like a wholly appropriate response.) Ritchie’s outing, though, is at its most entertaining when delivering the sorts of low-rent pleasures that the director first made his name on in early works such as Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels. Never one to dawdle, Ritchie gives us speedily re-enacted flashbacks and dovetailing montages and intentionally hyper-repetitive conversations suggesting a director working on no sleep and a crate of Red Bull, and it’s amazing how artfully the helmer’s signature style sweeps the cobwebs off the material. While the action remains (mostly) coherent, the film’s drive wards off the portentous bloat that accompanies many similarly themed works, and the quick pace forces Hunnam, Law, and the rest to achieve their acting effects swiftly and decisively; despite the two-hour-plus running length, this is a summer blockbuster without an ounce of body fat.
At times, the tempo may be too quick, and there were moments – especially in Vortigern’s discovery of a traitor in his midst – in which I wasn’t sure if I’d missed a crucial bit of narrative or if the movie itself simply sped right past it. But King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is still pretty darned excellent, and, for a Ritchie endeavor, a rather unexpected treasure trove of memorable images. (One of the downsides to his “Go! Go! Go!” approach is that even when you recall them with fondness, you can barely remember what his films look like.) The subterranean creature that grants Vortigern temporary powers in exchange for his loved ones’ blood is a slithering, unsettling blend of woman – three women, actually – and octopus, and there’s a haunting loveliness in Arthur following Excalibur into the sea and encountering the Lady of the Lake. A silent, faraway shot of an explosion in the upper reaches of a tower opens the film on a suitably evocative note. Even the image of Vortigern slouching on his throne, with Law exuding louche menace, sticks in my mind the way few sights in Ritchie movies ever have. I’m no fan of the director’s recent Sherlock Holmes tales, but if their financial success continues to ensure dynamic Ritchie experiments such as this one, may those Downey-and-Law shenanigans thrive ad infinitum.
At one point in the minimalist Iraq War thriller The Wall, Aaron Taylor-Jonson’s Army Ranger Isaac hunkers down behind the titular facade of loose stones in the desert, and a few of the rocks tumble on top of him. In the parlance of director Doug Liman’s latest, this would be called “an action scene,” because most of the film unfolds with Taylor-Johnson trapped behind that wall, John Cena’s Staff Sergeant Matthews lying face-down in the sand, and an unseen sniper threatening to pick both of them off with any given provocation. In outline, these would appear to be the makings for an effectively nasty little exercise in paranoia and suspense – a slightly less claustrophobic Phone Booth or Buried – and despite screenwriter Dwain Worrell’s enjoyably profane barracks humor, the introductory scenes are filled with both practical and existential dread. Yet after Cena is downed and Taylor-Johnson is pinned, what results, with only momentary exceptions, is a dull and rather offensive offering that isn’t worth Liman’s directorial finesse or Taylor-Johnson’s heroically executed one-man-show.
That sniper, you see, isn’t just a professional marksman. He’s a profoundly verbose and well-read psychopath (voiced by Laith Nakli) who taunts Isaac on his mobile phone with silky threats and show-offy knowledge of Army protocol, and even treats him to memorized passages from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” (Though we never get to see this assassin in the flesh, I’m reasonably sure that if we did, he’d be stroking a white kitty on his lap.) And despite Isaac’s attempts to get a visual on his assailant by pulling stones from the wall as in a deadly game of Jenga, his efforts never add up to much; he, and we, are simply stuck there while Taylor-Johnson slowly suffers from gunshot wounds, dehydration, and the natterings of an evil bore. Why are we watching this? What possible point could Liman and Worrell be making, aside from the incredibly old-news notion that our country should never have invaded Iraq in the first place? It may be mercifully short, but you’ll still feel every minute of The Wall’s 80, and those minutes seem all the longer once you realize we aren’t meant to even slightly empathize with the sniper, whose legitimate points against American interference and cruelty are lost amidst his Bond-villain megalomania. We’re just meant to root for the guy’s death. Liman’s movie may be set in 2007, but its attitudes suggest that, for its ideal audience, it really should’ve been released in 2003.
For reviews of Snatched and T2 Trainspotting, visit “Maternal Sunshine of the Spotless Kind.”