Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 13, 2017 8:09 pm 
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Lock, stock, and two unrelated leads: Guy Ritchie's heroic mess

As Peter Debruge points out in a Variety review, Guy Ritchie began by taking petty hoods and elevating them to heroic status, and since has gone in the opposite direction, taking distinguished cultural heroes (Sherlock Holmes, now King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) and lowering them to "gutter level." Is this so the lowest ranking in the audience can relate to them? But such portraits can only appeal to people with no knowledge of English literature or cultural tradition. Ritchie's mangling of Sherlock Holmes (twice - because a franchise is the game) was repulsive, but it held the popular audience. Not me. This time, with a misinterpretation of the word "legend," Debruge rightly concludes Ritchie "treats the Arthurian legend as opportunity for another rowdy chase after an elusive weapon."

At first King Arthur is an awesome melange of fantastical CGI imagery of such grandeur and confusion it stimulates the imagination. One might be watching some nightmarish recreation and elaboration of German expressionist cinema. If this were a silent film, and were cut down to under ninety minutes from its actual two hours-plus, one dreams that it might have been a strange work of art. That doesn't happen, unfortunately. The giant elephants are nightmarish, but only a hint of legendary monsters the heroic Arthur was, in some stories, supposed to have slain. Only this thread is dropped.

The opening gives tantalizing hints of a fantastical, inspiring legend, a hint of what might have been. There is also the positive fact that Charlie Hunnam, cast as Arthur here, has qualities ideal for his lead role as the prince lost as a child and raised in a brothel. He has both communicable charm and a certain natural nobility, blond handsomeness and beefed up physique. Hence his suitability for the long-running "Sons of Anarchy" TV series, where he is a kind of noble gangland prince. Hunnam hasn't had his due on the big screen, though he is in a beautiful film now, James Gray's Lost City of Z. He is perhaps even more physically challenged here than in Gray's film, in a different way, as King Arthur, but he is wasted. The way Ritchie depicts Arthur wavers wildly in tone. In the lighthearted, careless moments, Hunnam shines. They give him a chance to show the side of himself that was often on display early in his career as Nathan Maloney in Queer As Folk (whose lighthearted quality distinguished it so clearly from its American knockoff). Hunnam's gotten beefed up for the endless combat that makes up at least the second half of this over-long monstrosity. He never seems wrong in any particular moment; it's just that the moments don't cohere, and too often Arthur seems to be in limbo. You feel like there must be several good stories here. But they've been mangled and cross-cut and stuffed with actioner fat.

Ritchie has developed a taste for brain-damaging fast editing, tongue-in-cheek narratives one can't possibly follow. There are so many invented, irrelevant strands and factions in this movie, you may wonder what they put in your soft drink. For a few moments, when alternating characters speak different parts of a storytelling sentence illustrated with quick-cut action illustrations, it's wildly stimulating and feels like it might be witty - if you could follow it. But Ritchie has thumbed his nose at the audience from the beginning, in 1998, in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels . How can you reframe heroic legend as a shaggy dog story? The miracle is that Ritchie, despite some spectacular failures, has been able to go on making movies. But he's gotten his comeuppance this time, since audiences are not showing up for his King Arthur.

Jude Law played Dr. Watson opposite Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes in Ritchie's version - completely illogical casting. The pair mugged and orated like mad, but it was all in vain. Law's casting as the evil ruler and Arthur's would-be nemesis Vortigern is more logical. It allows him to ham it up imperiously, Caligula-like, more or less as he did recently in the HBO series, "The Young Pope." Lenny Belardo, the pontiff meant to be malleable who turns out to be a retro dictator, is a dream role for Law. It's a creepy, irritating series. But it's Paolo Sorrentino, so it also has many beautiful and remarkable moments. Vortigern is a campier, pared down version of that performance. Vertigern's story and Arthur's have few points in common. Ritchie can't begin to integrate his plot lines. He doesn't blend; he chops.

The story is a falsification, but it's interesting. Arthur, the natural leader and big success even in a brothel, is captured and then groomed as a slave, but turns out to have the magic power to extract the sword, Excalibur, from the stone. But he rejects the role this suggests, and also takes time to master the power, or to be able to manipulate the sword properly.

In this heroic mess there are lots of actors to spot and momentarily enjoy. Djimon Hounsou is impressive as Bedivere; Eric Bana less so as Uther. Craig McGinlay looks great as Percival: he has a haunted look that suits the knight who pursued the Holy Grail. Again you wish this were a silent film. The beginning of the "round table" at the end is fun, and the dubbing of the knights even has a bit of a chill about it if you know (but many won't) that this is the beginning of the greatest bodies of story in English culture, the Arthurian legends (talk about a franchise!). For fans of "Queer As Folk" there is a unique resonance, a fun "mnemonic irrelevance" to see Aidan Gillen, the Irish actor now best known as Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish in "Game of Thrones" but who played fifteen-year-old Nathan's thirty-year-old lover, touching the young, but tempered and tested young Arthur's shoulder with the sword.

King Arthur, 126 mins., debuted in the US 12 May 2017; UK, 19 May.


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