Thursday, April 30, 2009

Script Review: Medieval

Over at Go Into The Story and Scriptshadow, this script was chosen as a sort of 'homework assignment' for the blog readers. Both blogs will post their review and the readers will chime in with their comments.

So I thought it would be interesting to provide a European view of the script.

Medieval (Mike Finch and Alex Litvak) was sold as a spec script earlier this year, and McG has shown interest in directing it. The script was reported in the trades as a medieval version of The Dirty Dozen.

It isn't.

It's The Usual Suspects in a fantasy version of medieval Europe, by way of 300 and (primarily) hyperviolent video games.

Since this is a Usual Suspects-variation, with a Big Twist in the final ten pages, spoiling the ending is a very big deal. So I won't do it - I'll be able to post my opinions and concerns without having to go into the details of the ending.

The plot: seven supreme warriors (the Gypsy, the Viking, the Zulu, the Knight, the Samurai, the Arab, the Shaolin Monk) find themselves in a cell, waiting for their execution. A lawyer pops up and gives them a way out: if they raid the treasury of the king, which is protected by fiendish traps, and get their hands on the crown, they will be spared. And just to ensure their co-operation, the seven have been poisoned by their 'benefactor' with a poison which will be activated by sunlight.

The Superb Seven accept the job and arrive at the purported treasury, where they find they've been lied to: they're not in the treasury, the king has just been murdered, apparently by his bodyguard who's now attacking a pageboy. The protagonists intervene and go on the run with the page-boy who turns out to be a girl - and the Princess Amelia to boot. They have to reach a ship in the harbour which will carry them to safety.

Edward the Black, the king's evil twin brother, sets his entire army and his super-invincible bodyguards on the 'heroes'. They are blocked from reaching the harbour at a gigacntic bridge, and have to traverse the city - and the domains of the Gangs, criminal organizations which are EVEN MORE DEADLY than the SUPER BODY GUARDS of the villain, to reach the ship which will bring them to safety. Not all of them make it, but the survivors and Princess Amelia decide to turn the ship about and attack Edward in his castle, while he is being crowned king.
And after all of this, there's the big twist I can't mention here.

Medieval is utter nonsense. It puts together seven characters who couldn't possibly be in the same place at the same time (there were no more vikings in the 14th century for a start, and no samurai or shaolin monk ever came to Europe then).
The story takes place in an unnamed medieval version of New York. The country isn't named either, though it should apparently be England, except that Amelia calls herself Princess of Aquilon at one time. Which reminds us of Aquilonia, the country from the Hyborian age which Conan the Barbarian came to rule in Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery tales.

But then, believability isn't this script's main concern. It opens with 'Once upon a time in Medieval Europe' and it blithely disregards logic, historical accuracy, the laws of physics and the laws of good storytelling in an ever-present rush of 'OMGWTF!!!'-cool moments. You can have shootouts with bows, jump after someone who's falling to their death and slam into a wall while simulatneously jamming your daggers into the stone to provide infallible handholds, you can use medieval napalm and sticky bombs which would make the Pentagon jealous, and the city has exotic slave markets as well as large parts which are ruled by martial artist-courtesans or men dressed as birds with metal razors on their hands which, and I quote, 'would make Freddy Krueger jealous'.

And this is a perfect segue to my next point/gripe. This script uses the William Goldman/Shane Black style of talking to the reader in order to immerse them in the experience. Unfortunately, this is either done by telling us how 'fucking incredibly cool this fucking move is', or, and this really got on my nerves, by comparing what happens to what we've seen in other films. An underground tavern run by the King of the Gyspies is like Mos Eisley's cantina. When the protagonists are on the run in the warrens of the Ravens gang, it's Black Hawk Down time. When the samurai gets his big moment, gore spurts Lone Wolf and Cub style, the gangs are an obvious nod to The Warriors (someone even says 'Come out and play' at a certain point). And so on, and so forth.

Now, thinking it over, what we get here is actually a pitch session on paper. Executives can read this and immediately see what film this is supposed to look like at that time. It's shorthand, it creates images in the mind, and it links the script to succesful (or at least well-known) other films and franchises.

But it also shows that there is precious little originality at work here. Everything should be like some other film - except with the volume turned up to 12.

For our seven lead characters, none of which get a name though all of which have a Big Secret, are the meanest mofo badasses on the whole fucking planet. Except they keep running into even meaner mofo'ing badasses (teutonic knights who are not only invincible tanks but look like monsters when their helmets are removed, a sumo wrestler who's like a moving mountain, Hindu cannibal tribesmen who only came into existence in the 18th century), who then in turn are trumped by the still meaner mofo'ing badass supervillains of the gangs who are... trumped by our original seven. It's a continous bidding war of badassery, with tons and tons of cool moves and, more importantly, gore. Lots and lots of gruesome gore.

The characters are archetypes, and very one-dimensional. Which makes the revelations of their hidden pasts and demons in the second half of the script rather surprising and really quite unnecessary. There's so much blood and thunder that the character scenes have to be squeezed in. And frankly, I didn't care about any of them. Because everything about this script was unbelievable, trying for some character development was a waste of time.

In any case, I didn't care about any of the characters, good or bad. I was surprised by some of the lead character deaths, and I was also surprised to discover that a few who I thought had died during the finale actually survived. But I never formed any attachment to any of them.

There's a structure present in the script pages themselves: it's divided into 5 chapters headings (which will be onscreen if the script is filmed as is). They are not necessary though: none of the chapter headings actually add anything to the narrative.
What is surprising is that we should have a clear five act structure, but look at the page count:

Chapter one: The Gathering: page 3-24
Chapter two: The Heist: page 24-29
Chapter three: The Set-Up: page 29 - 47
Chapter four: The Getaway: page 47 - 98(!)
Chapter five: The Return: page 98 - 118

So we see that the second chapter is incredibly short, and that the fourth chapter takes up almost half of the screenplay. It's a truly bizarre choice, as while reading I had the feeling that I'd missed out on a chapter. The first chapter is more or less your traditional Act One, but chapters 2-4 certainly aren't a traditional act 2.

As for the big twist: it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. One of the characters isn't how we were made to perceive them, and had a Big Masterplan. But unlike the master plan in Usual Suspects, which also doesn't really make sense but which has the wonderfully clever reveal of the items in the policeman's office having been used as 'props' in the development of the story we've been told.
Here, the revelation is just that someone's motives were different from what we thought, and the chance of success at the plan was so ridiculously low that it drives the final nail into the coffin of the story.

Okay, lots of negativity here. But the script sold. For a hefty sum, as well. So why was it succesful, then?

It's written in a very visual way. There are lots of descriptions of CGI shots which are intended to wow the audience and entice the director reading the script, there are many descriptions of slo-mo or handheld and frenetic shots, and, no matter how absurd and over-the-top the characters and situations are, you do imagine them while reading the script.

Secondly, this is a script aimed at teenage males and students, and it hits all the right notes: profanity, violence, over-the-top stunts, gore, gore and more gore, some anti-heroic behaviour at times, and a few naked women here and there to spice things up. 300 also was a success (though it was a godawful film), and this script aims at the same audience - which, let's face it, is out there and is global.

Thirdly, as I mentioned, the conversational style of the action directions and the frequent explicit references to other films make it a pitch session on paper, and I can see this working for development executives who think they get a very clear idea of what the finished film will be like.

Still, I can't help wishing that the whole concept had been treated in a somewhat more realistic way, or that it had been an out-and-out fantasy movie (where concerns of real-life historical accuracy do not come into play). And that the characters were more appealing. And that the dialogue didn't waver between Tarantino-esque profanity and typical historical bombast. And... oh well. I won't be standing in line to watch Medieval when it comes out - but there will be many, many who will.

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