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Posts Tagged ‘Guy Ritchie’

One of the various innovative ticketing initiatives/scams that my magic cinema entry card allows me to avoid is so-called ‘Blockbuster Pricing’, whereby the powers that be routinely stick a couple of quid on top of the regular cost of a ticket, if they think it’s a film that a lot of people are going to want to see. Quite who decides on this sort of thing I don’t know, I imagine some sort of panel meets in a darkened room somewhere and makes a ruling on a quarterly basis. Not that they always seem to get it right: currently enjoying an extra quid on top of the regular price is Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which strictly speaking looks like being a blockbuster only in its aspirations – early projections are apparently that this is going to turn out to be a historic bomb.

There have of course been lots of Arthurian movies down the years, many of them rather undistinguished of course, perhaps the best-known being John Boorman’s Excalibur, and the most recent high-profile offering Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur from 2004. Excalibur did okay at the box office, by the standards of its day, but King Arthur didn’t, and it has been suggested that this is just one example of a curious trend where historically popular stories and genres are not capturing the imaginations of modern audiences – last year’s Tarzan movie, for instance, was only modestly successful at the box office. Perhaps it’s simply the case that the kids just want to go and see the latest superhero or computer game adaptation.

In any case, Legend of the Sword seems to be trying fairly hard to lure in a younger audience, for it opens with a virtual reprise of various bits of Lord of the Rings, with the fortress of Camelot under attack by an evil wizard and his minions (including some rather surprising elephants which are about the size of oil-rigs). Noble King Uther (Eric Bana) springs into action and sees the baddies off, fairly easily, but this turns out just to be a prelude to a grab for power by his wicked brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern seizes the throne but the king’s infant son Arthur floats off down the river to safety, his identity unknown.

He winds up in the city of Londinium (hmmm), where he is adopted by a gang of prostitutes and raised in a brothel. Years whizz past, courtesy of the first of several funky montage sequences, and soon enough Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a grown man, a face on the local underworld scene, and a dab hand at kung fu following regular training sessions down the neighbourhood martial arts school.

No, wait, it gets better (for a given value of better, anyway). In the meantime Vortigern has grown rather concerned about his nephew coming back to take revenge, but fortunately has an infallible method of finding out who he is – there’s a big stone outside the castle with a sword sticking out of it, and (stop me if you’ve heard this one) only the rightful heir can draw Excalibur forth. Young men from all over the country are being rounded up and forced to give it a try, under the watchful eye of David Beckham (formerly a noted football player, m’lud).

Yes, it really is him, and he provides one of the biggest ‘You what?’ moments in a film not exactly short on them. Truth be told, Goldenballs is not in the movie for very long, but the very brevity of his participation just makes the scale of his achievement all the more impressive: it takes a very rare individual to be quite as arrestingly awful in a really very tiny part as Beckham is here. He makes Vinnie Jones in X-Men 3 look like Sir John Gielgud.

Well, anyway, having pulled Excalibur out, Arthur is clocked as the rightful heir and things look bleak for him. However, various members of the old regime who are resisting Vortigern’s rule rescue Arthur, with an eye to grooming him as a possible replacement. But our man decides he’s nobody’s puppet and sets about assembling his own gangland crew to take down his wicked uncle, Londinium-massive style! (One thing you can say about that King Arthur, no grannies got mugged when he was around, he never hurt one of his own, and you could leave yer front door unlocked, etc.)

Whatever else you want to say about Guy Ritchie as a film-maker, he is at least consistent. After two Sherlock Holmes movies that weren’t exactly purist in their approach to Conan Doyle, and a Man from UNCLE adaptation that frankly bore no resemblance whatsoever to the TV show, he has now rocked up with an Arthurian film which is virtually unrecognisable as anything of the sort. They keep the sword in the stone bit, but there’s no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no Morgan le Fay, and virtually no Merlin or Mordred (mystical duties are palmed off to a somewhat ethereally gamine character played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey).

I must confess I was all set to have some fun with the fact that, in this film, King Arthur has the kind of beard and hairstyle you would normally expect to find on the barman of a hipster cafe in Shoreditch, but this seems like a very small matter when you consider that the film also contains magic elephants, half-woman half-squid life coaches, rodents of unusual size, kung fu fights, and many other elements that Tennyson, Mallory, White and the rest just plumb forgot to mention. (There’s a moment where King Vortigern tells his lieutenant to ‘Do your ****ing job’ which I suspect may not be drawn from the Venerable Bede.) These are mostly incidental, though: the film essentially feels like the result of a three-way collision between one of Ritchie’s lairy lad gangster movies, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (or, to be less charitable, Warcraft), and a Marvel superhero film – Arthur’s claim to the throne is backed up not by his nobility or wisdom, but by the fact that wielding Excalibur gives him bad-ass superpowers and the ability to slaughter vast numbers of bad guys in the twinkling of an eye.

And no doubt you are expecting me to tear into the movie for all of this. I find that I can’t quite do this, not because it really works as an experience – it doesn’t, although the sheer incongruity of the different elements does make it bizarrely watchable, simply because you never know what’s coming next – but because it’s pretty clear that this isn’t just some ham-fisted, clueless muddle – Ritchie has been largely successful in making exactly the film he wanted to make. It’s just that he had zero interest in wanting to make a traditional (some might say ‘sane’) Arthurian movie. Sequences that could’ve been quite authentic are simply rushed through, while others which bizarrely resemble chunks of contemporary gangland drama have been spliced in instead.

In some ways it resembles Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale from 2001, another movie which cheerfully took an axe to historical accuracy in the name of crowd-pleasing entertainment, and a film which I rather enjoyed. The difference is that Legend of the Sword doesn’t seem to have quite the same cheerful sense of its own absurdity – it takes itself relatively seriously – and that A Knight’s Tale wasn’t wreaking havoc upon one of the foundational myths of Britain.

I suspect we may be spared the rest of the proposed six-film series which Legend of the Sword was supposed to inaugurate, and I must confess to feeling a little saddened by that – I would’ve been rather curious to see just how far out there the other films could get, and it would at least have kept Ritchie from getting up to mischief with other properties for a decade or so. There may well be an audience for this film – always assuming there are people out there who want to see a bog-standard fantasy film made in the style of a lad’s mag gangster dramedy – but not a big enough one to make this a commercial success. It’s not so much a bad film as much as a very, very weird one – but there are still many more bad bits than great ones. And yes, Beckham, I’m looking at you.

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The world is full of mysteries – most bafflingly, right now, why anyone would think it was a good idea to make a new Transporter movie without Jason Statham, but I digress – and the secret of consistently good and lucrative film-making is one of them. Mind you, that’s only part of the story – once your film is made, it’s still got to be reviewed, and this can be just as random a process as the actual production.

Or so it seems to me, at least: I think we can safely ascribe much of Fantastic Four‘s underwhelming opening weekend to the vicious reviews it received. Not that this wasn’t deserved, of course, for we’re talking about a film which is tonally all over the place, fundamentally unfaithful to the source material, and frequently quite dull to watch. 8% on Rotten Tomatoes could be considered a harsh rating, but not by much. Guy Ritchie’s new take on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., on the other hand, currently basks in a comparatively luxuriant 67%, even though… well, we’ll get to that, I expect.

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Ritchie’s movie opens in early-60s Berlin, where playboy thief and CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is intent on extracting a young woman named Gabby (Alicia Vikander) to assist him in his current assignment. However, she is already being watched by towering KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Nevertheless, Solo succeeds, and is naturally surprised when his superiors inform him that Kuryakin is to be his new partner (the Russian is not impressed either). Gabby’s father is a nuclear physicist whose discovery of a quicker way of enriching uranium could facilitate the production of nuclear warheads, and this has brought him to the attention of a Rome-based criminal syndicate. The US and the USSR have agreed to co-operate in order to find the man and bring down the criminals.

So, younger readers may be wondering, this film is about a CIA agent and a KGB agent joining forces to take on an un-named set of bad guys. So why on earth is it called The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? That’s a good question. I suspect it is because the makers of this film believe that the title The Man from U.N.C.L.E. still has some traction amongst audiences of a certain vintage and they have duly purchased the rights to it and slapped it on a buddy-buddy spy film in the hopes of luring in people with fond memories of the original.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E., should you be curious and yet too sedentary to check it out on Wikipedia, was a popular TV series of the 1960s. It was very much a post-Bond piece of entertainment (indeed, Ian Fleming was involved in its genesis), very heavy on gadgets and slick spy-fi storylines. It was very much at home in a pop-cultural landscape that included similar shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, Mission: Impossible, and so on. All of these series were ultimately totally escapist, serving to distract audiences from international tensions rather than examine them in any realistic or rigorous way.

So why would you make an adaptation of the show which largely revolves around the political and personal tensions between the two lead characters? Why would you ditch the concept of U.N.C.L.E. as actual organisation and just make a film about a joint CIA-KGB operation? Why would you reimagine the two protagonists so thoroughly? (Or, if you prefer, stick the names of popular characters on two wholly new creations?) The film’s Solo is an amoral crook working off his prison sentence by working for the CIA; the film’s Kuryakin is by turns Soviet iceman and Viking berserker.

There is no use of Jerry Goldsmith’s famous theme from the show. You will look in vain for any sign of a radio concealed in a pen, for those little triangular badges they used to wear, or for the organisation of bad guys from the TV show which has a rather embarassing name by modern standards. As you may or may not recall, I was no great fan of Kingsman, but I will still cheerfully admit that even in its mongrelised way, it was closer to the spirit and style of the original Man from U.N.C.L.E. than this so-called film adaptation is.

Okay, so forget about the fact that this is supposed to be based on a classic TV show (Ritchie and company certainly seem to) – how does it stand up as a spy movie in its own right? Well, if your idea of a really good spy film is something made by Fellini or starring Audrey Hepburn, you’ll probably be quite happy, because once the action shifts to Rome those seem to have been the primary influences on the film. People are forever leaping into speedboats to zip about the Bay of Naples, or decking themselves out in retro 60s gear. It’s all very evocative and nice to look at, but not especially gripping.

The direction is, to be honest, a bit self-indulgent: Ritchie can’t seem to resist going for very ostentatious set-pieces that may show his talent for composition and editing but don’t necessarily hold together that well as a story (or provide the spy movie staples). At one point a speedboat chase beckons, but Ritchie opts to go for some very laid-back business with a packed lunch and the soundtrack instead. Possibly he was just trying to be ironic, but I’m not sure he’d earned that right at that point.

In addition to being more concerned with atmsophere and aesthetics than actual plot, there’s something very odd going on with the tone here, too. The best thing about the film is indisputably Henry Cavill’s performance, which strikes a very entertaining note of drolly ironic detachment, but he’s stuck in a film which mostly takes itself pretty seriously. And when it doesn’t, it fumbles as often as it succeeds: one lengthy ‘gag’ revolves around a minor character slowly being electrocuted and burning to death. Oh, my sides. (I couldn’t help recalling that, at one point in its very long gestation, this film had Quentin Tarantino attached as a possible director.)

Cavill and Hammer do their level best with the material – both of them are in the fortunate position of being actors that Hollywood seems determined to turn into big stars, no matter how many stumbles there are en route – while Hugh Grant is also okay as Mr Waverley (needless to say he has very little in common with Leo G Carroll’s character from the show). But on the whole I thought this was an underwhelming and frequently quite dull film. To be honest, I kind of felt cheated by the use of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. name on a movie which quite clearly has no connection to the show, nor any real desire to have one. This is moderately stylish but utterly vacuous; not even fun in an ironic way.

 

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It sometimes feels like the world is full of awkward truths, facts that you would really give anything not to have to acknowledge, but ones that decency and integrity eventually and inevitably require you to. If you are a Star Wars fan you have to reach some sort of accommodation with the first two prequels; if you love Richard Wagner’s operas you have to acknowledge the noxious racial prejudice underlying much of his greatest work. And if you are an admirer of Jason Statham you have to accept that he started his movie career working for Guy Ritchie and ended up starring in the director’s Revolver.

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In the past I’ve made various jokes along the lines of ‘I’ve never seen a really bad Jason Statham movie – but then I haven’t watched Revolver yet, har har’. I really shouldn’t have, but then my thought processes ran (rather naively) along the lines of ‘everyone involved appears to be at least vaguely competent, and this is a fairly big movie – film studios aren’t stupid, there’s a limit to quite how bad it can be’. Oh, boy.

Revolver was released in the first half of 2005 and so dates back to that period when Jason Statham wasn’t quite perceived as a star who could carry a movie on his own (I think this started to happen after the success of Transporter 2 and Crank, not that it matters). Certainly the essential Jason Statham characterisation has yet to fully crystallise at this point, and he is magnificently coiffed and moustachioed in this film too.

Anyway, in Revolver Mr Statham plays Jake Green, a shady character not long out of prison and intent on revenge on the gangster he holds responsible for putting him there, Macha (Ray Liotta). During his time in prison Green has learnt something only referred to as the Formula, a system which makes him utterly invincible at any game or confidence trick. It appears that this even extends to playing heads-or-tails, and if you can’t get your head around how that could possibly work, walk away now (you will beat the rush if nothing else).

Having taken Macha for a sizeable chunk of cash, Green is dismayed to learn he is terminally ill and has only three days left to live (look, just don’t ask; just let it wash over you, all right?). He agrees to an offer from two mysterious loan sharks (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore) who will save his life in exchange for all his money and a sort of indentured servitude. Reluctantly he agrees.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot of Revolver; not because there are various twists and surprises which I am loth to spoil (I suppose there are), but because for most of the rest of the movie I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on. Some drugs get stolen and there’s a half-hearted attempt at a gang war, there are various cons within cons, Ray Liotta walks around a lot in his pants (even in the buff, for one dismaying scene), there is blood, mayhem, an awful lot of effing and jeffing, everyone worries a lot about a mysterious character called Mr Gold who doesn’t seem to actually appear in the film, and so on. But what you mainly get is Jason Statham doing a voice-over as Jake Green’s interior monologue.

Jake Green has a lot to say for himself through his interior monologue. Unfortunately – and you may be ahead of me here – what he has to say for himself is almost complete gibberish, mostly related to his mysterious Formula and the life lessons he has derived from it.

It’s not the case that Revolver has a complex plot which is just realised through poor storytelling. Revolver has an allegorical and symbolic plot, the deeper meaning of which remains almost entirely impenetrable simply through watching the film. Various numbers appear prominently at certain points, while colours are clearly also significant – not only do we have key players named Green and Gold, but some scenes are flooded with red or blue or white.

My understanding is that the key to attempting to make sense of Revolver is an appreciation of kabbalah, a Jewish-derived numerological system which Guy Ritchie was heavily into at the time he made the film. Quite how much of this interest derived from Ritchie’s then-wife Madonna, who is apparently a dead-keen kabbalah nut herself, I don’t know, but it’s very difficult not to jump to conclusions. (As an aside, one can’t help but be rather impressed by the way that Madonna managed to spectacularly wreck Ritchie’s directorial career even when she wasn’t personally appearing in his films. She clearly has some sort of extraordinary death-touch when it comes to anything involving the silver screen.)

Well, anyway, I don’t know the first thing about kabbalah, and neither, I suspect, does Jason Statham, which may explain why he is obviously floundering around in this film, basically resorting to just snarling and sweating a lot while his interior monologue plays over the top. This film is light on action and the kind of snappy dialogue Statham can usually deliver so well – to be honest, it’s light on everything except a sort of studied pretension. Not only is it virtually impossible to tell what the director is trying to say, it’s also impossible to tell just where the film is even supposed to be taking place – British, American, and Chinese characters mingle together almost at random.

Suffice to say this film is extremely hard work, with virtually no entertainment value beyond the background hum derived from seeing Jason Statham on screen. Mark Strong appears as a slightly nerdy hitman and achieves the minor miracle of making his scenes rather gripping – this, I remind you, in a context where unsympathetic and obscure characters do abstract things for no apparent reason and various major plot questions are never even acknowledged, let alone answered. But apart from Statham and Strong this is just awful, pretentious, obscure, nasty tripe.

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Back we go again to that beloved world where old war wounds migrate, snakes are partial to milk, martial arts styles are somewhat fictitious and first names are oddly mutable: yes, it’s time for a look at Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, directed as before by Guy Ritchie. Portraying the immortal characters involved are, once again, Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, and Jude Law as Doctor Watson, while Eddie Marsan, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly and Geraldine James briefly reprise their roles from the first film as Lestrade, Irene Adler, Mary Morstan and Mrs Hudson respectively. New to proceedings this time around are Stephen Fry as Mycroft, Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty.

Only very loosely following on from the previous movie, this film finds Moriarty behind a Machiavellian plot to start the First World War twenty years early (pretty much the same plan he had when he appeared in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, but I am in no position to criticise his lack of imagination as I used the same joke on that occasion too). Holmes and Watson are, of course, on the case, only mildly distracted by Watson’s looming nuptials. Their pursuit of the master criminal leads them across Europe, from Paris into Germany, and beyond, to a final confrontation high in the Swiss Alps.

The story is a very, very, very loose adaptation of The Final Problem, but you have to be on the ball to really spot this, as the signs are mostly hidden beneath many layers of comedy squabbling between Downey and Law, and also spectacular action set-pieces. Nevertheless this is still an improvement on the wholly original and somehow slightly unsatisfying story from Sherlock Holmes. And it’s very apparent that the writers have done their research and really delved deep into Conan Doyle’s works – there are so many little details in this film which add nothing to the story, but will mean the world to Sherlockians (Holmes’ birth year is got right, as is the name of Moriarty’s most famous work), that it would be very difficult to give this film a completely hard time.

Nevertheless, I still don’t think either of the Ritchie films are really premium Holmes, though for a while I struggled to settle on why. I don’t think it’s entirely down to the presentation of the two leads (though I do find Downey’s Holmes to be a bit too mad and dishevelled, and Law’s Watson a bit too irascible, for either to really convince), but more the way that the scripts of these films cheerfully detonate the structure of the original stories. You know – Holmes and Watson are enjoying breakfast in Baker Street, someone arrives with a seemingly-inexplicable problem, Holmes springs into action, etc, etc. Holmes as a martial artist and self-employed gentleman adventurer is by no means utterly inconsistent with Conan Doyle, but the very texture of the stories in these films is not recognisable as that of the classic Holmes canon.

Indeed, in this film there’s a sequence where Holmes and Watson have to machine-gun their way out of an enemy base which is much more like a Bond film than anything else. The action in this movie is well-mounted and the whole thing has been lavishly put together, with sumptuous production values and cinematography. And the movie is stuffed with moments verging on the brilliant – every time Holmes and Moriarty have a scene together, for example – even if things do occasionally get a bit silly (some of Holmes’ disguises stretch credulity to its utmost limits).

And whatever you may make of the two lead roles, there is some fantastic acting going on here – Noomi Rapace is a bit underused as the female lead, but Stephen Fry is terrific as Mycroft (revealing yet another new side to his talents), and Jared Harris is even better as Moriarty.

Our time is curiously blessed – received wisdom has it that in years gone by, every generation had one and only one Sherlock Holmes worthy of consideration, whether that be William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett. And yet we are lucky enough to have both Downey’s version of the character and Benedict Cumberbatch’s to enjoy, the latter in Sherlock.

Sherlock comes back on TV in a few weeks, promising its own take on The Final Problem, and it will no doubt be interesting to compare the two. Sherlock may not have the big Hollywood money behind it, with the associated production values, but in terms of wit and intelligence and – above all else – fidelity to the original stories, for me it outguns the Guy Ritchie movies in virtually every department.

But, that said, this movie is an enjoyably frenetic and inventive way of spending a couple of hours, and certainly better than the first one. Is A Game of Shadows a classic interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos? Absolutely not, but then I’m not sure it was ever intended to be. Is it a fun and satisfying piece of blockbuster entertainment? Yeah, pretty much – so I suppose we should settle for that.

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