Friday, June 9, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword

Apparently May of 2017 was Charlie Hunnam Month at the cineplex, as he starred in two major films at the same time (this one and The Lost City Of Z). Unfortunately for him, both turned out to be huge box office flops. So what went wrong? Was it a case of bad timing? Bad scripts? Or do people just really, really not care for Charlie Hunnam?

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword was written by Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie. It was directed by Guy Ritchie.
Harold is primarily a producer, whose sole previous screenwriting credit was Awake. Wigram is also a prolific producer, who previously wrote Sherlock Holmes and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Ritchie is a prolific writer, producer and director. He previously wrote AND directed Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Swept Away, Revolver, RocknRolla and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He directed Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows.

Guy Ritchie also took one for the team and was married to Madonna from 2000 until 2008. I guess someone had to do it...

Note that David Dobkin also receives "story credit" on the film. Um... Shouldn't that go to Geoffrey Of Monmouth, who wrote the original Arthurian legends back in 1130?

This is Hollywood's first Arthurian film since Antoine Fuqua's similarly revisionist King Arthur in 2004, 
which starred Clive Owen and Keira Knightley.


At first glance, Guy Ritchie might seem like an odd choice to helm this film. But hey, his gritty and grounded style-over-substance approach worked for the Sherlock Holmes movies, so it oughta be perfect for King Arthur as well, right? RIGHT?


Wrong.


Ritchie's take on the material adds absolutely nothing to the film, as he throws out virtually everything in the traditional Arthurian mythology. This will likely confuse newbies and scholars alike, as his version makes Monty Python And The Holy Grail look like a meticulously researched, historically accurate documentary. Worst of all, despite its numerous action setpieces, it's just plain dull.


If you've ever read King Arthur before and thought, "Eh, this is OK, but there just aren't enough gigantic CGI fantasy monsters, and I wish the main character was a lovable thug with a morally grey code of ethics," then this is the movie for you!


This is definitely not your father's King Arthur, laws no. No longer is he a noble and selfless knight. This Arthur's a 
streetwise con-man and pimp (seriously!), who enjoys nothing more than a good brawl, couldn't care less about saving the world and wields the Medieval equivalent of a lightsaber (also seriously!). Same goes for the Knights Of The Round Table, who've been transformed into a motley crew of low-level criminals who engage in witty banter with their leader.


Wondering why Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad and the Holy Grail don't show up in this film? Me too. According to the producers, this is supposedly the first of a planned six part King Arthur franchise. They're just setting up Arthur's origin here, and the other characters are scheduled to show up in future installments.

Sorry, but... no. King Arthur 2: Knights Unite or whatever they planned to call it ain't gonna happen. The initial film is a major flop, which will no doubt force Warner Bros. to cancel any and all intentions of a followup.


Why do studios keep making these grandiose franchise plans before the first film premieres and proves itself a success? Lionsgate did the same thing a couple months ago with their dark, gritty Power Rangers reboot. They too had a six film series all mapped out, only to have those hopes and dreams dashed when the first film crashed and burned upon release.


Wouldn't it make infinitely more sense to release one film, see how that does, and then start planning your franchise? Seems like it'd be much less risky, and there'd be a lot less snickering behind the producers' backs.


So far King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is tanking violently at the box office, grossing a very anemic $37 million here in the States, for a total of $130 million worldwide. That sounds like a lot of dough until you weigh it against the film's MASSIVE $175 million budget. 


Due to marketing and other hidden costs, movies need to make about twice their production budget just to break even. That means King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword will need to gross $350 million before it can start turning a profit. There's no way in hell it'll ever get close to that amount.

I have absolutely no idea why the film cost so much. 
Either ALL the actors pulled down enormous $20 million dollar paychecks or this was another one of those movies designed as a tax write off, ala Monster Trucks


Yes, King Arthur features a lot of CGI creatures and a few epic battle scenes, but on the whole it looks like a typical episode of Game Of Thrones. For the sake of comparison, virtually every scene in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 contains some kind of special effect, and two of its main characters are total CGI creations. Yet it cost just $25 million more. 


So why did the film fail so miserably? Some industry insiders say it's because Charlie Hunnam just isn't leading man material. Others say it's because audiences don't care about King Arthur. That may all be true, but the real culprit here is timing.


The film was originally scheduled for release on July 22, 2016. For some reason, Warner Bros. then moved the release date up to February 17, 2017, and then to March 24. A few weeks later they then bumped it up one last time to May 12, 2017. As we've seen over and over, any time a movie gets delayed multiple times, it's ALWAYS a bad, bad sign. When will studios ever learn?


Supposedly Warner Bros. moved the film from March 24 to avoid competition from the new CHiPS film (!). Seriously? They really saw CHiPS as a threat? Jesus Christ! Unfortunately the May 12 release date put King Arthur firmly between the premieres of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 on May 5 and Alien: Covenant on May 19, which may go down as one of the stupidest decisions in Hollywood history. It never stood a chance wedged between those two juggernauts!


SPOILERS FOR A MOVIE BASED ON A NINE HUNDRED YEAR OLD STORY!


The Plot:
The film begins with the evil mage Mordred attacking Camelot. He conjures up a herd of five hundred foot tall elephants from The Return Of The King and lays waste to the city. King Uther Pendragon (briefly played by Eric Bana) leads his own troops against Mordred's army. He climbs to the top of Mordred's mobile war tower and uses his sword Excalibur to slay the mage.

Uther's brother Vortigern (played by Jude Law) is also a mage, and believes he should be the rightful ruler of Camelot. He sacrifices his wife Elsa to a group of sirens in a pit below the castle, which grants him supernatural powers. He then leads a coup against his king with his personal army, called the Blacklegs.

Uther takes his wife Igraine and son Arthur to the docks, in an effort to get them to safety. Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer, er, I mean a Demon Knight then appears, killing Igraine. Arthur hides in a boat and sees the Demon Knight kill Uther. With him out of the way, Vortigern is now king.

Arthur floats safely downriver, just like Moses (hey, wrong fictional story!). He runs aground in the city of Londinium, where he's found by a prostitute named Lucy, who raises him in a brothel. Through the power of a montage, we see Arthur grow up, as his life on the streets teaches him to be a capable fighter. The now adult Arthur (played by Charlie Hunnam) eventually takes over the brothel and provides for the women who raised him (so... a pimp then?). He becomes friends with two other ruffians named Rubio and Percival.

When a group of Vikings assault Lucy, Arthur and his pals retaliate against them. This draws the attention of the Blacklegs, who claim the Vikings are under Vortigern's protection. The Blackleg Commander kills Lucy and the other prostitutes in front of Arthur, then puts him on a slave ship bound for Camelot.

Meanwhile, for some reason the sea around Vortigern's castle drains like water from a tub, revealing the sword Excalibur stuck in a stone on the ocean floor. Vortigern meets with the sirens again, saying he's still not at full power. They say it happens to all guys now and then. Just kidding, they tell him that Arthur's still alive and he'll never succeed until he kills him and claims the power of Excalibur for himself. To that end, Vortigern rounds up all the young men in his kingdom, forcing them to try to pull the sword from the stone in order to find Arthur.

The slave ship arrives, and Arthur and the other prisoners are forced to try and free the sword. Arthur steps up to the stone, and when he wraps his hands around the hilt of Excalibur he sees images of the night his father died. He easily pulls the sword from the stone and holds it aloft. It begins glowing like a lightsaber (take THAT, traditional Arthurian legend!) which causes him to pass out. He wakes in a dungeon, and receives a visit from his uncle Vortigern. He explains to Arthur who his father was, and why he was so affected by the sword.


Uther's former general Sir Bedevere (played by Dimon Hounsou) is approached by a female known only as The Mage, who says she was sent by Merlin to help Arthur.

Vortigern sentences Arthur to public execution. Just as he's about to be killed, The Mage summons a flock of hawks to attack the Blacklegs, while Bedevere and his men rescue Arthur. They take him to their hideout, where Bedevere says they need Arthur's help to defeat the evil Vortigern. Arthur says he's no hero, and passes out once again after trying to wield Excalibur. This causes the rebels to question whether Arthur's their savior or just another schlub.

Bedevere explains that Vortigern is planning on building a massive Mage Tower, and if it's completed he'll be unstoppable. He says the only thing that can stop Vortigern is Excalibur, and Arthur, being Uther's son, is the only one who can use it. Because we're only halfway through the movie, Arthur says he doesn't know how to wield the sword. The Mage suggests Arthur visit the mystical Blacklands in order to learn.

Arthur travels to the Blacklands (not to be confused with the Blacklegs) and battles lots of expensive CGI creatures. The sword causes him to have another vision of the night his parents died. The Demon Knight throws a spear at his mother, killing her. Uther battles the Knight, but is fatally wounded. He throws Excalibur into the air, and as it impales him as it comes back down. Uther turns into the stone that held Excalibur and then sinks into the sea, which I have to admit was pretty cool). Arthur wakes from the vision, determined to kill Vortigern (so he didn't want to kill him before?).

Arthur and his rebels learn that Vortigern's coming to Londinium for an important meeting, and plan to kill him there. The plan goes horribly wrong when Vortigern sends a decoy instead of appearing himself. Arthur and his men are discovered and make a run for it. Rubio's injured and tells Arthur to leave him behind. The others are eventually surrounded by Blacklegs, forcing Arthur to unleash Excalaibur. He grabs the sword with both hands, gives a mighty swing and kills them all.

Arthur and his men hide out in the city, waiting for nightfall so they can escape. Blue, Rubio's son, sneaks out to find his father. Unfortunately Blue leads Vortigern right to the injured Rubio. Vortigern tortures him to find out where Arthur's hiding. When he won't talk, Vortigern kills Rubio in front of Blue, who runs back to Arthur and the Gang.

Stung by Rubio's death and feeling he's not a leader, Arthur angrily flings Excalibur into the sea. He walks through the woods moping, and is pulled into a pond by the Lady Of The Lake. She shows him what'll happen if Vortigern isn't defeated, and basically kicks him in the ass and tells him to wrap up the plot.

Arthur returns with a renewed purpose, and rounds up Bedevere, George and Percival. They return to their hideout and find out that the Blacklegs have killed the rest of the Gang, and captured both Blue and The Mage (she couldn't defend herself against normal human soldiers?). Vortigern's ally Greybeard the Viking tells Arthur to surrender, or Blue and The Mage will die.

Arthur goes to Vortigern's castle and turns himself in. Vortigern releases The Mage, who conjures up a giant snake that kills all the Blacklegs. Arthur's rebels enter and free all of Vortigern's prisoners and wipe out the remaining Blacklegs.

Vortigern needs more power, so he sacrifices his daughter Catia to the sirens. He's instantly transformed into the Demon Knight again. He and Arthur then have an epic duel. Arthur's eventually overwhelmed, and sees the vision of his parents' death again. Uther throws Excalibur into the air, but before it hits him, Arthur grabs it. Uther tells his son it's high time he wielded the sword. Arthur then tells Vortigern that his actions engineered his own demise, and stabs him. He leaves Vortigern for dead (?) as Sauron's Barad-Dur, er, I mean the Mage Tower collapses on top of him.

Cut to Arthur knighting Bedevere and the rest of his Gang. They see he's been busy building something... a round object that looks like a table. Arthur's then crowned the new king, and holds Excalibur high into the air as the crowd cheers him.

Thoughts:
• Even if I hadn't seen his name in the opening credits, I'd have instantly recognized this as a Guy Ritchie film. You can spot his signature style a mile away. All his old favorite tics and flourishes are in full display in King Arthur, like he was checking items off a list. Here are just a few of them:


An Innovative Title Sequence
Check!

Rapid-Fire Dialogue Peppered With Nearly Impenetrable Slang
Check and Check! Somehow I doubt the real King Arthur (if he existed) had a Geordie accent.

Flashbacks Filled With Super-Fast Cuts And A Voiceover That Explains Plot Points
Check! There are at least two of these in the film.

Shirtless, Barefisted Boxing Match For No Good Reason
Check! Heck, there was even one of these in Sherlock Holmes! SHERLOCK HOLMES!

"Speed Up, Slow Down" Fight Scenes
Check! I lost count of how many times this technique's used (or should I say "overused") in the film. OK, this trope was innovative when it first appeared back in 300, but it looks reeeeeally dated today.

Fast-Paced, On-Foot Chase Scene Shot In Extreme Closeup
Check! The one in King Arthur is particularly noteworthy, as it looks like the camera was somehow attached to the running actors.

And those are just the Richie-esque trademarks I spotted. I'm sure there are more that I missed.

• The opening battle scene features an attack by gigantic, five hundred foot tall war elephants that dwarf the Mumakil in The Return of The King. Not something I remember from traditional Arthurian legend, but hey, whatever it takes to spice up this snoozefest.

Just like the Mumakil, these elephants had wooden platforms built onto their backs, filled with soldiers. Some of them also had what looked like enormous "wrecking balls" chained to their long trunks. 

At one point one of the elephants is started by an attack, causing it to raise its trunk high above its head. Unfortunately the wrecking ball on the end of its trunk then zooms wildly through the air, smashing the hut on its back and sending the soldiers flying.

That... that seems like a pretty big design flaw to me!

• At first I assumed that the female Mage character was supposed to be a gender-flipped version of Merlin, but no. She's actually listed in the credits as "The Mage." No doubt the studio planned to bring in the real Merlin in a later film.

There's actually a Merlin listed way, way down in the credits. I honestly don't remember seeing him in the film, but I think he might have briefly appeared in the lengthy expository prologue.

• I've been reading King Arthur stories since I was a kid, so I'm pretty familiar with the mythology. That said, I've never heard of "Vortigern" before, and assumed Ritchie made him up. Nope! Turns out Vortigern is in some versions of the story, but he's a very minor character.

• Earlier I compared the movie's look to Game Of Thrones. It also features at least one actor from the series— Aidan Gillen, aka Littlefinger, who plays Arthur's pal Bill here.

This shouldn't be a surprise, since as we all know there are only about twenty five actors in all of England. It's only natural for the same ones to continually pop up over and over in films.


• Dimon Hounsou plays Bedevere in the film. Has he ever starred in a film set in the present day? Seems like every time I see him he's either in a period piece or a futuristic sci-fi adventure.


The only contemporary film I think I've ever seen him in was Guardians Of The Galaxy, which, despite its look, was actually set in the present. He was some kind of alien cyborg in that film though, so it probably shouldn't count. I can't remember ever seeing him play a present day suburban dad or anything like that.

• Mikael Persbrandt, who played Beorn in The Hobbit films, plays Greybeard the Viking here. He's hidden behind a long beard (hence his character's name), but I recognized his voice immediately.

• One of the most famous moments in all of Arthurian legend is the scene in which he pulls the Sword From The Stone. Everyone's familiar with that bit, even people who've never read a King Arthur story in their lives.

Apparently Guy Ritchie doesn't think it's that big a deal though, as he completely botches this all-important moment. He films it in the dullest and most pedestrian way possible, as Charlie Hunnam pulls Excalibur out of the rock with all the gravitas of a old man trying to open a stuck dresser drawer.

Even worse, this momentous scene is totally overshadowed by a distracting and puzzling cameo by soccer star David Beckham (?), who plays one of Vortigern's henchmen named "Trigger."

In fact, Beckham's featured just as prominently in the scene as Hunnam is. Here's the way it plays out onscreen: 

(Arthur shoves his way through the crowd and up to the Stone)
Arthur: "Where do you want me?"
Trigger: "Bouncing on my knee, where do you think I want you? Hands on the hilt, stupid!"
(Arthur grabs the Sword with one hand and gives an anemic tug, but it won't budge)
Trigger: "Oi, both hands!"
(Arthur then grabs the Sword with both hands and nonchalantly pulls it out of the Stone with zero resistance)

Beautiful! It's like visual poetry!

Note that Ritchie must have a thing for David Beckham, as he gave him a small part in his previous film, The Man From UNCLE.

• In most versions of Arthurian legend, Excalibur doesn't really have many actual powers. It's said to give off an intense light— "as bright as thirty torches"— that could blind enemies, but that's about it.

Oddly enough, Excalibur's scabbard seemed to be more powerful than the sword itself. The scabbard had the power to protect the wearer from injury and blood loss.

Naturally in this film Excalibur's powers are ramped up to eleven. When Arthur holds it in one hand, it acts like a normal sword. But if he grips it with both hands, suddenly it glows like a lightsaber. It slices through anything, can throw opponents a hundred feet in the air, and even slow down time itself!

• For hundreds of years historians have argued as to whether Arthur was a real person or not. Even if he was, story elements such as Merlin, Excalibur, Camelot and the Knights Of The Round Table are most definitely fictional. So historical inaccuracy in Arthurian legend doesn't bother me much.

That said, a couple things jumped out at me in this film.

At the beginning of the film, young Arthur floats down a river to the city of Londinium, the prototype for modern day London. Londinium was a real settlement in England, founded around 43 AD. Unfortunately by the time Arthur was supposed to have lived, it was virtually destroyed and uninhabited after being raided by Saxons.

In the movie, Vortigern lives in an enormous castle. Eh, no. Castles didn't appear in Britain until about five hundred years after Arthur's era.


Shiny metal armor didn't exist in Arthur's time either.

This is clearly a fantasy movie though, so eh... I'm willing to overlook these issues.
• The end credits list Kieran Belshaw, Max Berman, Rob Bliss, Christopher Brandstrom and several dozen others as Concept Artists.

They forgot the most important name of all— the late Frank Frazetta! The Demon Knight in the film is DEFINITELY inspired by Frazetts's Death Dealer painting, and there's no way anyone will ever be able to convince me otherwise.


Here's a shot of the Demon Knight from the trailer...

And a closeup of his helmet.

And here's Frazetta's Death Dealer. The Demon Knight is the exact same goddamned design! They even gave him the same turned-down horns! And he carries an axe just like the one in the painting!

Someone owes the Frazetta estate a big fat royalty check, and I think it's Warner Bros.!


King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is a dull retelling of the Arthurian legend that short on substance but long on director Guy Ritchie's signature idiosyncrasies. Worst of all, it takes the Arthur character and turns him from a noble, honorable knight into a brawling, streetwise thug. Inexplicably filling the screen with CGI monsters to turn the film into The Lord Of The Rings doesn't help either. The movie was meant as the first of a six part Arthurian franchise that's never going to happen. Skip it and go watch the vastly superior 1981 Excalibur instead. I give it a C.

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