Sometimes a movie just gives the wrong impression from its conception, pre-production, and initial advertisement, and that’s exactly King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Optimistically planned as a six-part franchise, this new big-budget rendition of Arthurian legend looked like a total disaster. Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) seemed like the wrong fit for the material, the tone seemed messy and unclear, and it screamed a transparent attempt by Hollywood execs to sex up something old. I was holding out a sliver of hope that it might be stylish, mindless fun, and this was coming off of Ritchie’s unexpectedly enjoyable Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake. If I do not see a more headache-inducing, self-indulgent, cumbersome, illogical, and generally exasperating movie this summer, I will consider myself most fortunate.
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a streetwise youth raised in a whorehouse on the dirty streets of Londinium. He’s a low-level criminal with his own loyal crew and his own moral code. He’s also, unbeknownst to him, loyalty in the making. Arthur is the son of the former King Uther (Eric Bana) who was murdered by his brother and mage, Vortigern (Jude Law). Arthur runs afoul of the law and is captured, and his identity is revealed when he successfully pulls Excalibur from the stone. Vortigern must kill the young upstart but a group of dissidents kidnaps Arthur and pleads with him to join their cause. Together they can topple Vortigern and free England of his tyranny.
If you can keep up with Ritchie’s willfully shifty film narrative then you’re of sounder mind than me because it felt like King Arthur was just being made up on the spot. Whenever one tells a story in a fantasy realm with fantasy figures, the rules are important to establish, otherwise everything can just feel airless and arbitrary and anticlimactic. If a movie can’t establish its own internal logic and system of rules it feels obtuse. There aren’t setups, and without setups there can’t be well-orchestrated payoffs. This is basic structure, plain and simple. This does not happen in King Arthur at all. Beyond the most flimsy good-guys-triumph-over-evil underpinning, there is nothing that makes sense. Characters will all of a sudden achieve some advanced knowledge without the audience seeing how this was gained. Characters will make use of powers that would have been very useful if they had been used earlier but we have no explanation why. The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) all of a sudden summons a giant snake, or turns into a giant snake, and I’m thinking, if you have giant snake-making powers, why did you wait so long on this? Conversely, Vortigern offers blood sacrifices to an evil squid-siren-sister-threesome, but what he gains in exchange is vague, their demands are vague, as is their overall fit into a larger scheme. I thought Arthur was trying to stage an insurgency and court a political revolution, but that fizzles out after a few scenes of rare coherency. I gave up trying to understand the movie within the first twenty minutes. It feels like Ritchie and company are just hurtling through expected fantasy elements as if they were merely expanded features from a trailer and a chore to overcome. Arthur has an incredibly expedited adventure on an island with oversized animals (literal R.O.U.S.!), and it feels like Ritchie is just laughing at the expense of the audience and whatever genre demands they might have had.
The characters are also extremely uninteresting and kept me at a distance for the entire film. Ritchie is trying to incorporate his cheeky gangster movies into the fantasy mythology of the King Arthur legend, and the two don’t exactly fit. An early sequence involves Arthur explaining his routine that day through repetitious, annoying narration and a non-linear time-skipping timeline. It’s the kind of narrative trick we’ve become accustomed to in Ritchie’s movie. This time it was shallow because it wasn’t funny, interesting, and its only justifiable purpose seemed to be beating an audience into submission to remember the names of Arthur’s pals through rote repetition. The characters have stupid, Dick Tracy-in-Midlevel times names like Goose Fat Bill, Wet Stick, Back Lack, Chinese George, Jack’s Eye, Blue and Mischief John. Silly names by themselves are not an issue, as Snatch had characters with monikers like Franky Four-Fingers and Bullet-Tooth Tony, but by God those characters were memorable. These characters lack striking personalities and general purpose other than filling the frame. If you challenged me to put names to faces I would probably fail (the main female character doesn’t even get a name; she’s simply The Mage). These boring people just drifted from scene to scene, bumping into an increasingly arbitrary, ungainly, and meaningless plot.
The subtitle is also an indication of the deeper problems inherent with the plot. It’s “Legend of the Sword” and not “Arthur,” and it doesn’t even name the sword. We’re told that the sword wields immense power, though like much it’s never explained in any sort of manner that would provide context or general understanding. The sword is powerful but it’s also more active than our hero, because Arthur is told that the sword controls him and not the other way around. His mission then is learning to simply allow the sword to do its thing. His mission is to become more passive when fighting? Does that strike anybody as a character arc that makes sense or would be satisfying to watch?
With so many missteps at so many levels, the only way this movie could have been salvaged is from some sensational action sequences to quicken one’s pulse. Ritchie is a stylish director but I don’t think he’s ever been a great stager of action. His documentary-style zooms, speed ramps, and quick cuts are more about engendering an impression. An excellent example, and probably the high-point of the movie, is a montage establishing Arthur’s childhood growing up on the rough and tumble streets of Londinium. It’s wordless, set to a gasping, percussion-heavy score, and quickly establishes through concise visuals how Arthur came of age and gained his street smarts. The legitimate action sequences are underwhelming and poorly orchestrated. The setups are rushed, confusing, and the edits are a scrambled mixture of slow motion, fast motion, and extreme close-ups, a combination that doesn’t aid in coherency. The advanced fighting feels like the movie just accelerated into a video game cut scene. It’s generally as incomprehensible as the plot and as ultimately tiresome as the various characters.
Allow me to indulge an exemplary example as to why King Arthur is as stupid, irritating, and headache-inducing just from a plot standpoint, never mind Ritchie’s filmmaking tics. The villain has three chances to kill Arthur and he inexplicably whiffs every freaking time. The first is when Arthur is a young boy and his father manages to place him on a small dingy and pushes him out to sea like he’s Moses in a basket. Vortigern is his super video game bad guy ultra self, who we later see has the power to launch fiery projectiles, and he just watches as the slowest boat in the world slowly drifts away, forgetting he has projectile powers. Either that or the movie inserts an arbitrary limitation for no reason. Now established as king, Vortigern lives by the prophecy that Arthur will return and pull Excalibur from the stone and one day vanquish him; however, Arthur can still be killed because he is mortal. Arthur pulls the sword from its stony sheath and passes out. Does Vortigern kill his long-prophesied enemy while he’s unconscious? No. Does he kill him while he’s locked in a jail cell? No. Does he kill him before a big public ceremony where, surprise, a group of outlaws rescue Arthur? No. Even if you were being generous and account these foolish actions as the result of unchecked hubris, consider the very climactic battle between the adult Arthur and Vortigern. Once again, Vortigern has adopted his fiery, giant video game boss battle visage, the same that killed Arthur’s father that fateful night. It’s clearly a life and death showdown, and at one point Arthur gets thrown, hits his head on rock, and is knocked unconscious. He eventually wakes up and looks over to find… Vortigern just standing on the other side of the rock and admiring like a stone altar. It’s the battle between good and evil and evil decides to take a walk. Three obvious instances where the villain could have won, easily, and three illogical excuses that showcase the absence of even acceptable storytelling.
So what if the story of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is dumb and feels like it’s being randomly made up on the spot? So what if the characters are underwritten, lacking in distinguished personalities, and are rather pointless? So what if the main character has to learn to better give up his agency to a stupid magic sword? So what if the only significant female character doesn’t even merit a name? So what if the action often resorts to a slow-motion frenzy of a CGI dust cloud? So what if there are 300-foot sized elephants in this movie and then never appear again? So what if I don’t understand anybody’s personal relationships besides good and evil designations? So what if I was so bored and disengaged from the movie that I started contemplating strange subjects to pass the protracted time, like why does Hunnam’s natural British accent sound so fake, and why does Jude Law’s hair remind me of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters? The ultimate question is whether or not something as ostensibly irreverent as a cockney crime King Arthur is fun, and the answer is unequivocally no. If you’re still wondering how poorly conceived and executed this movie is, I’ve saved the best doozy for last, which coincidentally is also one of the final moments in the two-hour film. I kid you not, the movie ends with the eventual Knights of the Round Table actively befuddled by the existence of a round table. They cannot apply their knowledge of tables to this new, rounder model. They gawk, shake their heads, and wonder what it is exactly. There you have it, a group of heroes mentally defeated due to the absence of corners.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Pacific Rim is director Guillermo del Toro’s (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) giddy ode to the great monster movies of his youth, and if you’re fond of men in suits and large-scale cardboard destruction, then this movie is definitely for you. The word “awesome” seems too inadequate to describe the rock ‘em sock ‘em action of this picture. This is likely the most realistic and serious this concept will ever be realized, with a gargantuan budget and some top-notch special effects. del Toro, already something of a god in fanboy circles, will get his chiseled bust alongside Joss Whedon. Pacific Rim is a transporting blockbuster that doesn’t pull its punches, at least when it’s dealing with robots fighting monsters. If this is why del Toro dropped out of directing The Hobbit then I think it’s a good trade off.
In the near future, a rift opens at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that opens a gateway to another dimension. Through this portal, giant horrifying monsters the size of skyscrapers appear to wreck havoc on coastal cities. The monsters, known as kaiju, take a whole lot of work to go down. “To battle monsters, we had to make monsters, “ say a character in the prologue. The world unifies and responds with a program where two people pilot giant mechanical robots known as jaegers (yes college kids, you read that right). These pilots are psychically linked via a process known as the Drift; they work in tandem, sharing one mind. Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) is a former jeager pilot recovering from the loss of his co-pilot/older brother in battle. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) recruits him back to the final days of the jaeger program, a defense that has fallen out of favor with world leaders once the kaiju started winning again. Stationed in Hong Kong, Raleigh is looking for a new co-pilot and by all accounts it seems Pentecost’s diminutive assistant, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), is the best candidate, though Pentecost won’t allow it. Add some wacky scientists (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman) and an underground monster parts trader (Ron Perlman). The last days of the beleaguered jaeger program are all that stand between mankind and annihilation from giant beasts.
It’s undeniable how well Pacific Rim taps into your inner ten-year-old, the kid who crashed his toys together imagining larger-than-life battles. Truthfully, if I were ten years old, I’d likely declare Pacific Rim the greatest movie of all time, that is, until I saw one with boobs in it. Conceptually, this feels like just about every anime brought to life, and fans of anime, as well as monster movies in general, should be in heaven. It’s so much fun to watch but it also doesn’t get lost in the cacophony of special effects like many modern blockbusters. del Toro has a wonderful way of showcasing his action without losing track of the scale or the destruction. Unlike Man of Steel, we have city-wide devastation that feels like devastation. Giant monsters are a state of life for the world and so is the day-to-day anxiety that one’s coastal existence is about to be in ruins. The movie doesn’t get bogged down in post-9/11 solemnity, but at the same time I appreciated that del Toro makes his violence feel significant and the loss feel real.
The action onscreen is often exciting and screenwriter Travis Beacham (Iron Man 3) employs a nice system of escalating the stakes by applying a category system to the kaiju, rating them on a 1-5 scale. It provides a natural progression of opponents. Plus, besides the inherent excitement with the premise, Beacham and del Toro drop us into the middle of this story, years after the jaegers have fallen out of favor as a means of defense, thus providing another hook – underdogs. Our heroes don’t just control giant fighting robots, they are also underdogs and have to prove their mettle to dismissive authority figures. I was hooked.
del Toro has always been a man who can create living, breathing worlds that you just want to explore, and Pacific Rim is the same. I loved immersing myself in the minutia of this world, learning the different fighting techniques of the robot designs, the cultures that harvest the kaiju bodies (there are monster groupies as well), the rock-star status of the jaeger pilots, and most of all, the Drift. Psychically linking the pilots is an ingenious way to add to the emotional investment of what are otherwise fairly clichéd character types. They have to be in synch mentally, which requires a whole other level of trust and connection. The tragic back-story of Raleigh is given even more weight knowing that not only was he witness to his brother getting eaten alive by a giant scary monster, he was psychically linked and felt his brother’s overwhelming fear and pain. That would definitely shake me. The Drift also provides a unique way to include back-story without feeling like forced exposition. Seeing Mako’s horrifying childhood survival account is quite affecting, but it works even better knowing this is also a chance for Raleigh to understand and bond with her. That sequence, Mako as a child, is stunning, staying with her pint-sized perspective as she tries to outrun a ferocious monster bearing down on her. It slows things down and allows the true terror of the situation to seep in. Beacham and del Toro have put a great amount of thought with how this world operates, and it’s appreciated as seemingly every detail adds to a richer big picture.
Naturally, the special effects are just about every positive accolade you can put together. It’s a CGI heavy film that doesn’t look like a cartoon; something Michael Bay’s Transformers have difficulty overcoming. The robot designs aren’t overly busy. In fact, the main robot reminds me a lot of Metroid’s Samus suit (anybody?). The monsters are all a bit too similar in design though. They all start to bend together making it hard to differentiate them from one another, especially when they’re supposed to be getting bigger and badder. Part of my lukewarm reception with the monster designs, besides from del Toro’s sterling past reputation when it comes to creature designs, is that so many of the epic fight scenes happen with some level of visual obfuscation. They fight at night, they fight in the rain, they fight in the fog, they fight underwater, but rarely will they fight in a setting where you can clearly focus on the fighters. This very well could be a budgetary decision, allowing less work for visual effects artists so they can cover the scope of del Toro’s imagination. Still, it’s hard for me to compose an argument that a $200 million-dollar movie needed just a bit more money to properly show off the goods.
When it’s not wrecking havoc onscreen, the story can drag and you’ll notice how thin the characters are developed. It’s another reluctant hotshot and learning to get over a personal tragedy, trusting a new co-pilot, and taking stern advice from a begrudging father figure. That doesn’t mean they don’t work within the framework of the story; Hunnam (TV’s Sons of Anarchy) is solid if unspectacular, Elba (Thor, TV’s Luther) is the universe’s most authoritative badass, Day (Horrible Bosses) and Gorman (The Dark Knight Rises) provide a nice array of comic relief, and Kikuchi (Babel, The Brothers Bloom) makes for a formidable upstart hero. The character roles are familiar and thinly sketched but they come together in a satisfying manner, each contributing to the mission, and each finding a moment to make you care. When the fate of the world is at stake, it’s hard not to feel some investment in our ragtag assembly of heroes. With that being said, you will still feel drag in the middle, waiting for the next attack and for our heroes to suit up and do what they do best. The extended second act involves denying Raleigh and Mako the opportunity to do what we all know they need to do – man a jaeger. It can get restless as we keep getting roadblocks to something that seems inevitable. It’s akin to waiting too long for John Reid to accept his outlaw status in The Lone Ranger. I will give Beacham and del Toro extra credit for not leaving themselves open for an immediate sequel. Also, do stay through the credits for a nice treat.
I can easily recommend Pacific Rim with minor reservations, and if giant fightin’ robots and monsters is your thing, then the reservations won’t even matter when you get a movie this entertaining, fun, and skilled at providing the gee-whiz factor. I wish all summer movies were this fun. I was squealing with glee watching a giant robot drag a cargo ship across the streets of Hong Kong, gearing up to beat down a huge monster. The movie is packed with little moments like that. As with other del Toro productions, the world feels nicely realized, lived in, and sprawling with detail, even if the monsters all start looking the same (monster racism?). The plot does suffer a bit when it refocuses on the humans, but then again what plot wouldn’t suffer when it takes you away from giant robots fighting aliens? Pacific Rim isn’t the first of its kind. Besides the anime, Godzilla, and even Power Rangers influences that spring to mind, there have been numerous movies that follow a similar premise of Giant Thing A squaring off against Giant Thing B. What sets Pacific Rim apart is del Toro’s innate ability to channel your childlike glee at the concept, turning something monstrous into something fun while still giving respect to the weight of the moment. This is not a dumb action movie. del Toro’s sprawling artistic sensibility takes on summer blockbuster filmmaking and shows you how it can be done right for optimal effect without making your brain hurt. Now I need round two.
Nate’s Grade: B+