I often pursue the new work by familiar directors based on a minimum degree of fondness for one of their past efforts. Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie were not, until recently, high on my list of … anything, really. My youthful self’s surprise and macabre delight at the original Trainspotting has long been squandered by the erstwhile wunderkind Boyle, in misguided enterprises too thick to tell apart. (Pleading that you don’t ask me to explain, I’m quite taken with 2014’s Steve Jobs, which I’ve seen three times.) He seems now to dwell fitfully in the prestige class, having made one Best Picture Oscar winner and another that was nominated.
Ritchie opted for an alternate sustainability route, getting hired for the 2(-3?)-film Sherlock Holmes franchise, as well as large-scale projects like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the forthcoming live-action Aladdin, and this year’s King Arthur epic, starring Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law.
Throughout Ritchie’s promoted status, having earned admission to the multimillion-dollar club with visually inventive crime films like Snatch. and his 1998 debut, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (and stumbling only momentarily in the eyes of the Entertainment Weeklys of the world with the ill-fated Swept Away, starring his then-wife, Madonna), the director has applied a sometimes enervating, sometimes thrilling restlessness to a wide range of source material.
I sided with Ritchie at a late hour: I didn’t think much of his 2009 Sherlock Holmes, but I was won over by the 2011 sequel, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (reviewed here). The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which barely earned its keep at the global box office, is even better: an indulgently lackadaisical cold war thriller that spends as much time arguing about ladies’ belts as shooting it out with the bad guys. Ritchie’s impatience with linear narratives continues unabated, pausing films midstream to rewind and re-examine scenes to change emphases and reveal new information.
Ritchie’s handiwork on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword makes for an interesting auteurist case study. Please note that I am employing “auteurist” not to suggest “because I like the director, the film is automatically good.” Rather, I’m considering how a specific personality made an imprint on a movie that would not have been made, had another director been hired in their place.
Sometimes this guessing game is easy: when William Wyler took over the 1936 film Come and Get It from Howard Hawks, the result was a movie that was 90% vintage Hawks and 10% unmistakably someone else. Or take the scenes Orson Welles didn’t shoot for The Magnificent Ambersons: they stick out like crabgrass. On other films, like 1945’s A Royal Scandal, which Ernst Lubitsch began and Otto Preminger completed, it’s not so easy.
This isn’t to say King Arthur is the patchwork result of a studio hiring a 2nd (or 3rd, or…) director to complete reshoots, as was the case with last year’s viscerally unpleasant Star Wars entry, Rogue One. But the project, which boasts a half dozen writers and twice as many producers (including the current US Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin), very strongly suggests an enterprise in which many of the design and aesthetic decisions were made in advance of hiring anyone to conduct the presumably more pedestrian duties of directing.
A good 40% of King Arthur is Peter Jackson-inspired garbage: perfectly uninteresting visual effects reels with a handful of handsome compositions scattered throughout. This is the producer’s bailiwick – blasting the audience with smoke and lasers in the hopes that they won’t notice that nothing’s there.
The other 60-odd % is clearly given over to Ritchie to do with as he pleases: the soon-to-be King is a street punk, and the script is peppered with language that isn’t quite modern but isn’t exactly Chaucer. Ritchie presumably had a free hand in script and dialogue here, and it suits him to economize and transform large parts of Arthur’s tale into Lock, Stock, and Several Smoking Arrows.
This is a fun film that occasionally drowns in absurdly presumptuous gravity; Ritchie might be wholly defeated by one sequence, then put all his energy into the next. Sometimes there’s no division, and your heart goes all over the place. After a crushingly dull CGI finale, Arthur whispers to his foe, “You make sense of the devil” – a pretty good line. And throughout, there are suggestions of a tale told in postures and gestures, like Jude Law’s complacent slump, a foreign envoy’s shrug, and various street toughs’ “come here and push this chip off my shoulder” poses.
T2 Trainspotting isn’t exactly fun, although it sometimes signals that it’s trying, especially when it makes explicit visual callbacks to the 1996 original. Reuniting almost all of the primary, secondary, even tertiary collaborators from Trainspotting (although author Irvine Welsh’s blessing seems ambiguous and largely hands-off, from skimming the reports), T2 is nothing if not fully aware of how bleak its predecessor was, and how multiply sad it is that the four main characters end up in the roughly the same predicaments, two decades on. Surprisingly, T2 emerges as a model for continuing a long-thought-dormant story and ethos: moreso than its scrappy crime and drugs scenarios, it’s driven by thinking about itself as well as its source. It doesn’t just attempt to relive old glories, but it reflects wistfully on the folly of such attempts. If this is how you’re going to wallow in your own mythology, I have to concede, well done.