Thursday 25 May 2017

Contractual Obligation #1: King Arthur (2017)

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Damn right I had a VIP seat.

My (surprisingly still) friend KP sent me the money to see King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, because he thought I might have something to say about it. And I do. So this is my first Contractual Obligation post, where I have been gifted with the means to see a bad movie in the hopes that I will write about it. If you want to do the same, feel free, which is cheeky as hell, but I sat through this film so I get to say that.

This review contains swears and copious spoilers, but I wouldn't worry about them if I were you, because it's not like you're going to see it, right.

It's a deal, it's a steal. Sale of the sixth fucking century.
If it had been Lock, Stock and Two Shining Broadswords, it might at least have been fun, but this is a Warners tentpole fantasy, and that means that it needs to be Dark and a Bit Gothic and have Portentous Mythology that ticks the Joseph Campbell checklist and Big Fights where humour and fun are not required because this film is Serious Business except when it's being cheeky.

Right at the start, before the credits there's an enormous fantasy battle with the Biggest CGI War Elephants You Have Ever Seen, I mean they're ridiculous, without exaggeration able to splat the ones in The Lord of the Rings (films or books) under one gnarly foot. Seriously, they are huge.

That whole sequence ends with Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana, acting like he's in a much better film), going full on Zac Snyder Superman and taking out a whole army single handed with his Amazing Magic Sword Excalibur which is like a +97 Holy Avenger or something, and the D&D comparison is actually pretty fair since everything looks like it came out of a DnD book post-2007, including the crap CGI ogre that murders Uther and his wife Igraine, leaving young Arthur floating down the river alone. And presumably having seen Uther being such a badass before, you're supposed to think the ogre is a Terrible Threat, but you just end up thinking that if he took out a mad wizard (sorry, "mage") and a whole army including those FREAKING MASSIVE ELEPHANTS why can't he even take out a CGI ogre in a silly hat?
This doesn't even get across how huge these things are.
And so far, so Zak Snyder, and all the signs suggest it's going to be a godawful identikit action movie like all of the Man of Steels and the 300s, absolutely interchangeable. But then, as the credits roll, something really, really weird happens.

The music changes tone and speed and we shift into a high-speed montage, showing Arthur being brought up in a brothel by the staff, and him growing up to be a wheelerdealing Proper Cockney Monkey, a crooked Diamond Geezer with a Heart of Gold, and his gang of Cheeky Criminals. Arthur is in fact Arfur. And suddenly we've walked away from the ersatz Zac Snyder movie and into a Guy Ritchie movie.

And this keeps happening! You have the Big Stupid CGI Battles that Are So Dull You Want to Die and the PORTENTOUS MYTHOLOGY and then there's suddenly some cheeky cheery cockney geezers in a cave planning a cheeky heist or a cheeky assassination or a cheeky raid and every time, every time there's a Guy Ritchie Patent Heist Montage and Arfur's all "OI GEEZER I AM TAWKIN" with his sketchy rebel band of pals, which includes Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillan),  and Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and Chinese George (Tom Wu), and Back Lack (Neil Maskell) and, um, Sir Perceval (Craig McGinlay) and Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou). And if that sounds weird, well, it is.

A lot of these people are in the wrong movie. You don't cast Neil Maskell, one of my favourite actors, an actor who is criminally underrated, in a Big Po-Faced Dark Fantasy Movie. Jude Law as Vortigern gives it Big Operatic and Slightly Tragic Villain, but he keeps finding himself in scenes with Cheeky Cockney Geezers, and it doesn't work.
Guns for show, bows for pros.
Alone of anyone in the film, Aidan Gillan (who has experience in both fantasy drama and crime thrillers) pitches his performance at a level that works with both of the film's registers. Charlie Hunnam (him out of Pacific Rim) can do the clenched-teeth fighty bits, but isn't a really convincing geezer and his accent is, putting it kindly, a bit wobbly. Since he's supposed to carry the whole film, this is a problem.

Worse than that, when the movie tries to do a big emotional beat, when it attempts to stir the soul and lift the spirits, it's not earned. Peter Ferdinando is an amazing actor, and he gets to wear cool black armour and be Vortigern's chief henchman. And he dies, about halfway through, shot with an arrow by Goosefat Bill, who's all "I've been waiting for this for a long time" and OK, fine, but Ferdinando's only had one scene where he's got to be villainous, and then only a little bit villainous, and it isn't a payoff to anything, and that sort of hurts, because Peter Ferdinando is the sort of actor who really deserves a whole lot better.

When Arfur draws the Sword from the Stone, it's supposed to be all serious and powerful, only he's just sauntered to the front of the queue like a Cockney Roosta and he's being yelled at to get on with it by David Beckham.

He's being yelled at by David Beckham.

David. Beckham. Of Posh and Becks.

You heard me.

David Beckham.

This is the part where I have to say that I don't care about messing with Arthurian mythology. I mean, there's a lot wrong with it, and anyway there are loads of strands and variations you can pick on. You don't have to take any of them if you don't want to. Everyone always messed with Arthur. Thomas Mallory messed with it, Chrétien de Troyes messed with it, Roger Lancelyn Green messed with it, Wagner messed with it. You make an Arthurian film, you could do musical comedy, you could do romance, you could do operatic mythological drama. You could also easily do a 21st century action blockbuster or even a cheeky caper – it's when you try to do both of those latter films at the same time that it doesn't work.

Everyone recasts Arthurian legend for their own time, and I would be disappointed if it didn't have a diverse cast and some sort of twenty-first century spin. If you're seriously bothered more about people in ethnic minorities playing major parts than you are about hundred-foot-tall death metal war elephants and crap CGI ogres, you need to take a good hard look at your priorities, frankly.

But as for Arthurian legend, fold, spindle and mutilate it: I don't care.

I like, for instance, that the Merlin role is taken by a woman, who is not there as anyone's romantic interest, who has magical powers that follow sensible and consistent rules, and who rescues more than she is rescued. This is the sort of character that Arthurian myth, and fantasy movies period, should have more of. Maybe even as, you know, the protagonist.
When she's controlling an animal, her eyes change into the animal's, which is the one thing in this film I really like.
This is spoiled however because she's not given a name of her own, she's just "the mage", and she's explicitly just a proxy for Merlin. Also, Astrid Bergès-Frisby can't really act in English. English is clearly not a language she's comfortable with and she delivers every line in a sort of tortured monotone. She struggles. She deserves better.

The nameless Merlin-proxy gets a better deal than any other woman in the film, though: better than the girls at the brothel who get sidelined, used as a reason for Arfur to be angry, and in one case egregiously fridged; better than Igraine whose primary contribution is having her slow motion death scene replayed over and over; and much better than Vortigern's wife and daughter, both of whom literally exist as characters in the film so that Vortigern can use them as blood sacrifices to some faintly Lovecraftian sirens and look a bit sad about it, and all so he can become a crap CGI ogre with a stupid hat.

And here's the thing. If Guy Ritchie had been allowed to make a fun caper movie with Arfur and his Sketchy Cheeky Cheery Cockney Pals it still would have been misogynistic as all hell (I saw someone on Facebook the other day expressing hopes that this new film might make something progressive out of Arthurian mythology and I was thinking, yeah, but Guy Ritchie) but it might nonetheless have been a whole lot more fun than what we got.

I keep imagining that the studio wanted something all big and Zac Snyder, and Ritchie occasionally being like, yeah but can I at least have some heist montages with cheeky voice overs? Come on, Guy, say the execs, can't you make it a bit more Snyder?

And the single biggest problem is that it never comes alive because the two conflicting tones and styles (Ritchie doing Ritchie vs Ritchie doing Snyder) are so in opposition to each other that they cancel each other out, so you can't take the Fuckoff Giant Elephants and the Crap CGI Ogre and the weapons flying straight at you (because 3D) and the Important Mythology seriously because of the Cheeky Geezers and you can't enjoy the Cheeky Geezers because you keep being reminded it's Serious Business, and besides it's basically a superhero movie, so it has to have a 12A certificate, and that means that you don't even get the creative swearing you get in Guy Ritchie movies.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has bombed worldwide. A week down the line, and it hasn't even got halfway to recouping its budget. When I went to see it last night, knowing it would probably be my last chance, I had to take a picture of the theatre as I walked in.
I knew it had done badly, but holy crap.
This is a picture of a 9pm showing of a movie that cost over 170 million dollars American, in the first week of its release. This is a new movie. The crowd in the cinema amounted by the end of the trailers to four people.

That's not a hit. After a good first weekend in the UK, it's bombed.

People have stayed away in droves. And asking why, well, that's like asking why some people don't win the lottery, but let's have a crack.

It's not that people don't care about King Arthur. I mean, outside of Britain, they don't, but no one cared about the Guardians of the Galaxy either and that didn't stop Marvel cleaning up with them.

It's not that big grimdark genre pictures fail. I mean, look, I don't like Cheeky Cockney Gangsters movies either but if you forced me to choose between, say, Lock Stock and Man of Steel, which would be like being asked whether I'd prefer to be punched or stabbed, I'll take the Guy Ritchie knuckle sandwich every time.

But I'd be an idiot if I pretended the big miserable, joyless genre movies that Warners churn out don't bank. They do! People like them! Nice people! I literally can't see how, but there it is. People like these movies. And pay lots of money to see them. In fact, I think that if it had been a big humourless grimdark Gothic fantasy, Batman with a broadsword, it might have succeeded on the financial level, if not on an artistic level (like the artistic level even matters – at best that's a bonus). Even if they'd marketed it that way, rather than trying to play up the street level grit, it might not have failed so horribly at the box office.

And the trailers really played up the Cheeky Geezers angle, so that a big bunch of the sort of people who would go see Another Endless Fucking Zac Snyder Movie stayed away, and the sort of people who like Cockney Gangsters, who aren't nearly as many as you think to begin with, sure as hell aren't going to see a King Arthur movie, so I reckon they stayed away too.

I can speculate all I want. Fact is, it's bombed and it's leaving a cinema near you very soon. But I'm glad I saw it, and glad I went with the intention of finding something to say, because it made me think about what we expect from a film like this, and what happens when a film like this doesn't deliver.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a bad film, a film that didn't know what it wanted to be. It had a lot of actors who deserved to be in better films and gave it their best. But if it had been a worse film, it might have been a hit.