(Video On-Demand, September 2017) The reviews for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword were harsh enough that I didn’t expect to enjoy the film, but it doesn’t turn out to be quite as bad as anticipated. As an attempt to take the Arthurian legend and fuse it with modern fantasy filmmaking, it’s actually rather good. It helps that director Guy Richie’s style is in full display here: while some sequences are almost incomprehensible (sometimes due to information being undisclosed until much later), other moments have almost genius-level editing blending cause and effect, narration and irony in one energetic package. There are a lot of special effects along the way, Jude Law effectively mugging for the camera as a villain (which he should do more often), and an honest attempt at revitalizing Arthurian myth. It’s certainly not all good. Charlie Hunnam remains a strikingly ineffective lead despite being better here than in many other movies. There are a few dull moments. The anachronisms are blatant despite taking place in an avowed fantasy film. And yet, and yet… King Arthur: Legend of the Sword does have its share of strong moments, and it’s almost regrettable that its commercial failure film means that none of its planned sequels will even be brought to screen. As an origin story, it would have promised much for later exploits of the Knights of the Round Table. As it is, though, it’s a better-than-average fantasy film, with almost-stirring echoes of British myth-making for us colonials. I very much prefer this maximalist approach to the Arthurian legend than 2004’s gritty yet completely dull King Arthur, which made the legend so realistic that it completely lost interest.
(On DVD, February 2017) So; what happens when you start watching a crime thriller and an existentialist drama breaks out? Watch Revolver to find out. The weight of expectations clearly runs against the film: This is a Guy Richie movie! Starring Jason Statham and Ray Liotta! Featuring high-powered criminals! How can it not be another Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrel, Snatch or Rock-and-rolla? Well, it turns out that under the trappings of a crime thriller, Revolver wants to be something else. It messes with Kabbalistic symbols, deconstructs the inner psyche of a criminal, plays with components of the self, and, quite visibly, loses track of what it meant to do. Seeing Luc Besson’s name on the script is a warning more than a feature. Richie’s typically dynamic direction here feels disjointed if not actively unbalanced—the unreality of the heavily processed opening sequences eventually lead to the depiction of a mental breakdown as seen from the inside. It’s not pretty, and Revolver is equally remarkable for the way it’s willing to deglamorize strong actors. Statham has unflattering hair and an even worse dramatic arc, while Mark Strong has to contend with equally terrible hair and a surprisingly wimpy character. Self-important and pretentious to a fault, Revolver is an experience more than a film, and the right response at the end is something along the lines of a wary “okay…” Even the “reworked” American version barely works on the surface level of a crime thriller—and it’s exhausting enough that it discourages any attempt to go beyond the surface. I used to think that Swept Away was the worst thing that Madonna ever did to Richie (well, except for the pain of divorce, etc.) but Revolver has to be a close second.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) I probably asked too much from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or wanted something different from what director Guy Richie had in mind. High expectations weren’t unreasonable, though, considering the good memories that I have of Richie’s oeuvre so far, from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels all the way to Sherlock Holmes 2. But I wasn’t quite convinced by Richie’s intentions in designing this homage to sixties spy comedies. The directing seems inspired by period style, to say nothing of the visual atmosphere of the film or its plot. Those expecting a modern take may be surprised by a slow pacing, off-kilter humour, strange action sequences choices and relatively small stakes. Oh, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does have its share of pleasures: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Viklander are all very photogenic and capable (for Hammer and Cavill, their performances are confirmation that they can do more than their best-known roles), Hugh Grant is unexpectedly fun as a minor character and there are a few very good moments. While the charm of the film may be overstated, it’s nonetheless present. Still, it feels overly restrained, a bit dull on the side and not as triumphant as it ought to have been. It’s meant to set up a series, but even a sequel looks doubtful at this point, given the film’s understandably tepid reception.
(In theaters, December 2011) It goes without saying that sequels often aim to replicate the elements that made the success of their predecessor, and add something more. In this light, this follow-up to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes is an unqualified success, and maybe even a more enjoyable film than its predecessor. Front and center, of course, is Robert Downey Jr.’s fast-witted take on the title character, complete with instant-strategy monologues and slashy repartee with Jude Law’s dependable Watson. More importantly, though, Game of Shadows ups the ante by providing an antagonist that is strong enough to present a challenge to Holmes: Jared Harris’ Moriarty lives up to its literary namesake, and makes for a formidable opponent. It all leads to a climactic chess game that plays off a few of the series’ signature motifs. (Literary fans will see Reichenbach Falls appear and nod at where the film is going.) Casting Stephen Fry as Mycroft is a bit of a coup, while it’s nice to see Noomi Rapace’s high cheekbones get a bit of Hollywood gloss after her role as “The Girl” of the Millennium trilogy. Director Guy Richie once again provides an action-adventure take on the basic premise, along with light steampunk esthetics and slow-motion action sequences. (A blue-tinted run through a forest provides a quasi-impressionistic sequence of almost-still images.) While the end result doesn’t transcend the Hollywood holiday blockbuster genre, it’s a well-executed example of the form, keenly aware of its audience’s demands and almost eager to satisfy them.
(In theatres, December 2009) It had to happen sooner or later: a retelling of Sherlock Holmes (suspiciously absent from the big screen since 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes) in the mode of the action thriller. No, it’s not even trying to be an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories: This Sherlock Holmes knows how to fight, has abandoned deerstalker hat restraint for debonair nonchalance and enjoys the company of a hot ex-girlfriend. Pre-made for slash fiction writers, explosion connoisseurs and steampunk enthusiasts, Sherlock Holmes has little to say about its character, and a lot about modern blockbuster filmmaking. It generally works, despite Scooby-doo plotting and inconsistent use of dramatic devices. At least we’re spared an origin story, as the story picks up well into Holmes’ career. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be channelling Tony Stark with an irresistibly arrogant portrait of a super-genius (it works because he’s charmingly roguish rather than super-nerdy) while Jude Law does his job as the level-headed foil. Rachel McAdams, for some reason, always look better in historical movies (must be costumes), while Mark Strong turns in another performance as the bad guy. Director Guy Richie reigns in some of his usual tricks but manages to deliver a satisfying action film. Only the sound seems a bit soft (the mumbling doesn’t help): viewers without an ear for soft English accents may want to wait for DVD subtitles or sit closer to the screen. The CGI-enhanced portrait of 1880s London is suitably grimy, mechanical and interesting. Sherlock Holmes may be a travesty of the original stories and a by-the-number mainstream thriller, but it’s pretty good as such. Bring on the sequel, and let’s see Holmes square off against Moriarty.
(In theaters, November 2008) It may be that marrying Madonna was the worst artistic mistake Guy Richie ever made, and his partial return to form with this film in the wake of his divorce will only intensify this supposition. Going back to Richie’s London-underworld roots, RocknRolla isn’t quite as good as Snatch or Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, but at least it’s quite a bit above Swept Away. The flashy direction is back, as is the rock-and-roll soundtrack. From the first few intense minutes, the story steadily complexifies, until you can’t tell the good from the bad guys. And there lies the biggest of the film’s problem: For all of the crazy narrative energy, bravura set-pieces and Thandie Newton’s purring performance, it’s never too clear who, exactly, we should be cheering for. There are no everyman protagonists in this crazy gallery of ever-crazed criminals. Mark Strong may be admirable in his second breakout performance of the year (mere weeks after Body of Lies), but his crime-lord personae isn’t one to empathize with. Unlike Richie’s two best films, RocknRolla is a performance to be watched rather than a film to like. It’s quite a bit of fun, and a really promising step back up in his career, but it’s still missing something underneath the surface gloss.
(In theaters, January 2001) Well, if you loved director Guy Ritchie’s first film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, get ready to run and see Snatch, because it’s pretty much the same film. Low-level English criminals, complicated plot, multiple camera tricks, fast editing, time-shifting, incomprehensible English accents; it’s all there, and the level of quality is pretty much identical. While it’s not as delightfully surprising as the first film, it’s probably more self-assured. (It is somewhat darker, though) Most of the actors are excellent in their respective roles, but special notice must go to Brad Pitt as a gypsy boxer. Make sure to turn on the subtitles before watching the film. Good fun.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2001) Sure, a great script is always a good basis for a great film, but it usually takes more than that. Director Guy Richie is this element for Snatch, confidently mixing virtuoso editing, unusual -but appropriate- camera tricks, wonderful music and an assured mastery of all that’s cool. Part of the success must be shared by the actors, of course (with a special emphasis on Vinnie Jones and Brad Pitt), without whom coolness would have no face. This is one film which you won’t get tired of watching, if only because of the density of some of the material. The DVD is everything you’d hope about Snatch, from an informative audio commentary to a honest making-of featurette. Snatch Snatch as soon as possible!