Script Review: Brian K. Vaughan's Roundtable Comedy Epic
by Nick Valentine
October 21, 2008
Today we present another reader submitted review of a hot Hollywood script. I recently got the opportunity to read Roundtable, a screenplay written by Brian K. Vaughan, who is most widely known for writing various comic books, including Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways, as well as his work as a writer for "Lost." Roundtable is an action/comedy that has the fabled wizard Merlin rounding up modern day English knights to defend England from an ancient evil. However, instead of finding metal-clad, sword-swinging heroes, all Merlin can find are wimpy scientists, washed up athletes, and actors. He recruits four unlikely Englishmen to become true knights and stop an evil sorceress from taking over the world. The concept for the story is clever, the writing is great, and the script for Roundtable is good. Really good.
The script begins with a medieval battle; peasants are running through the countryside yelling and screaming, but as the camera zooms in closer, we see worms crawling in and out of the bodies and discover that these are actually zombie peasants. Then enters a proud knight wielding a broadsword, gallantly mowing down zombies on horseback. But he is swiftly atomized by a magical blast from behind as we are introduced to the story's curvaceous antagonist, Morgana. She is levitating over her army of zombies, magic electricity sparkling from her hands, black hair blowing in the wind. Three other knights enter and stand with their swords at the ready in defense against the witch and her army. Morgana gets in a few cocky lines touting her own inevitable victory, when the knights reveal they have a magician on their side as well. A falcon swoops in from the sky as the legendary wizard Merlin materializes, the bird landing gracefully on his arm. He is described quite differently than a typical storybook Merlin. While he still has his swirling black robes and his white beard, he is portrayed by an American comical actor (the script suggests Jack Black or Seth Rogen). Merlin uses his superior magic and restrains Morgana as the remaining three knights plunge their swords into her. Morgana's body swirls and transforms into a looming tree and the zombie army disintegrates, leaving our heroes and Merlin alone on the top of this English hill. One knight asks what will happen if Morgana ever escapes, Merlin replies that new knights of England will be needed and at that time be called the defend the empire. And so the stage is set for our modern day "knights."
The story flashes forward to present day England, where an awkward scientist named Simon is being knighted and is awarded a medal of knighthood for his advancements in the study of newts. Simon is awkward and nerdy, constantly making formal faux paus with the Queen and those around him. Unlike Merlin's character, the script never specifies an actor, but after naming him Simon, my mind immediately jumps to Simon Pegg. He's the awkward star of the script. He meets the necessary "damsel" of the story, an attractive female British police officer named "Bobbi" (a "bobby" named "Bobbi," yeah, we get it.) They share some awkward but flirtatious dialogue and Simon eventually gets her phone number. We then swing back to a the same hill from the opening scene where a lumberjack unwittingly cuts down the tree where our villain was imprisoned. Morgana emerges from the tree, naked (wisps of smoke conveniently swirling around certain private parts), and kills the lumberjack as a falcon flies off in the distance.
Cut back to Merlin, who now apparently lives in Manhattan and spends his time playing an online multiplayer game (think World of Warcraft). His avatar is, of course, a wizard, and the avatar is doing his best to help other players in the game from being so reckless. Merlin has cut his beard and is looking very un-wizardly. He wears boxers and a t-shirt and it's clear from the messy apartment and dusty wand on the wall that it's been quite some time since he's had to do any real "wizard work." However, in flies his trusty falcon, whom Merlin refers to as "Princess," bearing the warning of Morgana's return. So Merlin sends her off to England to round up a new "roundtable" of knights to defend England's green soil.
So back to England we go to meet the rest of our ensemble cast. First up is Sir Ricky, a washed up Olympian pole-vaulter trying to hock his medal of knighthood at a pawn shop with depressing results. He's a drunk, no longer in his physical prime, clearly with not a lot going for him. Once again, like Simon's character, I wonder if the naming of the character was a hint revealing who the writer would ultimately like to see cast. In this case, Ricky Gervais. Outside of a pub, Ricky sees Merlin's falcon, who teleports Ricky away. Cut to Sir Edmund, a cocky and heartless billionaire. He's described as a handsome black man with a deadpan personality. Once again the falcon appears and teleports him away. We then meet the final knight in our quartet. None other than Sir Michael Caine, who gets the rare privilege of playing himself. Michael Caine is shooting a western when the same falcon appears in his trailer, teleporting him off as well. We then revisit Simon, back in his London flat, who gets the same teleportation treatment.
All four knights appear, confused and a little angry, on Merlin's porch. Merlin then explains that they are the next chosen "roundtable," destined to defend England from Morgana and her army of zombies. The stage is set for this ridiculous and clever "coming of knighthood" adventure.
The script is filled with great humor and what should turn out to be some exciting action scenes. While the premise is clever and entertaining, it's the characters that make this script a whole lot of fun. Simon is nerdy and awkward, Ricky is pathetic and lazy, Edmund is cocky and heartless, and Michael Caine is, well, he's frickin' Michael Caine. The four of them really have great and clever dialogue, and the performances should easily pull these characters off of the page and make them downright hilarious. And while the first three characters have dialogue and jokes that are individually funny, it's Sir Michael Caine who steals the show. Caine is constantly being ridiculed for being in films like Jaws 4 while his Oscar winning performances are forgotten. In one scene he desperately tries to get the other knights to remember who he is by touting his acclaimed films, when they continue to not recognize him, he finally mentions his role in Batman. The other knights continue to look at him, puzzled, until one finally says, "Michael Keaton?" It also will be great to see Michael Caine being a badass swinging around a battle axe. His role in this script reminds me of Robert Downey Jr's role in Tropic Thunder where a supporting character really does steal the show and takes the movie from funny to hilarious.
The script is a good blend of all sorts of humor. The majority is dry English humor, but there are also great opportunities for comedic actors to make us laugh with their performances, and just a hint of slapstick to make for a great comedy (people getting hit with stuff will never stop being funny). While it does contain plenty of entertaining action, Vaughan never forgets that this is a comedy. The action is a tool that is used perfectly to compliment the humor, and in certain points, brilliantly be a joke in itself.
It's only when Vaughan tries too hard to force in English slang jokes that I felt like the humor wasn't genuinely funny. "Shat," "arse," "bollocks," and "bloody hell" can be funny and can add some English flavor to the story and the characters, but when they're used as punchlines, it feels cheap. The one-liners are what American audiences will giggle at, but when a British man says "piss off," that will most likely get eye rolls instead of laughs. The script is at its best when the characters are funny, not the slang. Fortunately, that is the case for a majority of the screenplay.
The story of Roundtable is extremely well written. The characters are well established and all have concise character arcs. My only concern was during the middle of the movie when the characters all finally decide to "man up" and become knights. It felt a bit rushed and, with the exception of Michael Caine's character (who is already a badass), the transformation from "pathetic" to "hero" seemed to need some work. However, the script I read was a first draft, and I have full confidence that this is one of the areas that will be addressed moving forward. The story follows a somewhat predictable progression of events for an action adventure, but it is also very smart and at no point feels boring or hackneyed. There were plenty of moments that I could tell were about to happen, and there were plenty of moments that took me by surprise and made me appreciate what is, on the whole, a great screenplay.
The story, characters, action and humor are all very well written, and Michael Caine will, in my opinion, steal the show. Roundtable is a great script and has the potential to be an absolute smash hit comedy.