Tis’ a silly place
You gotta feel bad for the Arthurian legend in Hollywood, it’s got maybe two great film based on the legend with Sword in the Stone and Monty Python’s take, as well as a few television shows that know how to take advantage of the mythos. Our last turn with Arthur and his knights was that 2004 version with a “realistic” take on the legend as opposed to all the cool shit with magic and the Holy Grail. We’re back to the realm of fantasy with Guy Ritchie’s new version, and…well. A talented and stylish director can usually make an overused or classic story feel fresh again, see Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby or Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. But sometimes the style can drown out what made the classic enjoyable, see Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet or Guy Ritchie’s new take on King Arthur.
For this version, we start with Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) having already set up Camelot with the magical blade of Excalibur in hand, then warding off an attack by the dark mage, Mordred. Having brought peace to his lands, he gets betrayed by his brother Vortigren (Jude Law), who kills Uther and his wife but forgets to kill the infant Arthur and leaves Excalibur trapped to a stone. Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is spared by being taking a boat Moses-style to Londiniun, where he’s taken in by a brothel and grows up to become the head of medieval crime hang. By the way, everything I just described is the first 8 minutes before the opening credits of the film…
“How in the shit did they fit all that into such a small period of time and make it work?” I hear you ask from across the Internet, and the answer is “completely sloppily.” Seriously, I wanted to put Guy Ritchie in rehab cause I swear the dude was on coke while editing this thing. The film is only two hours long and yet it feels like a lifetime of events occur in that time frame, only being vomited at you at the speed of Mach II. There’s rarely a moment in this film for you to catch your breath; and when the film finally learns to calm the hell down for a few nanoseconds, it’s mostly to replay a scene from the beginning of the movie over and over again. Does it reveal anything new to you or Arthur? Nope. So what the hell is the point of replaying it? Fucked if I know.
Now, if I were to judge the world-building alone of this film, I would not be as hard as I am on this film. Because I genuinely like the idea of a thuggish Arthur running the streets of medieval Briton as he rises to become a king through the help of a magic sword. Honestly, it’s a set up that works just fine on its own and it feels like a genuinely fresh take on the Arthurian legend. But I’m criticizing this film as a whole, and the execution of this world is where the movie stumbles completely in several areas. Details surrounding this mythos are introduced and dropped almost entirely, namely the fact that there was a race of mages that lived side by side with regular people until they were wiped out by Vortigren. This leaves Astrid Beges-Frisbey as one of the last remaining mages (or maybe the last one period) who comes to Arthur’s aid, and makes very vague allusions of what became of the mages and name dropping Merlin (who you only see his back just once in the film). I imagine this was to leave a plot point to explore in one of the SIX planned sequels to this film, but based on the box office performance I doubt we will receive any payoff for. But as I mentioned in my Marvel rankings, a slavish devotion to world building is what dooms individual films in a “cinematic universe,” so the film’s story has to stand on its own two feet.
Unfortunately for Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie was at the helm and for some odd reason, he decided to use his nonlinear, highly edited style to tell the story and it’s shocking how bad it doesn’t work. I will freely admit that Sherlock Holmes worked well with Ritchie’s sensibilities because the editing and quick cuts were there to convey Sherlock’s state of mind and how he processes the world around him. It was seemingly chaotic, but Ritchie would show you how Sherlock would end up deducing how everything went down in reality. It also worked for Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels because you were dealing with a menagerie of crooks all working against each other with multiple different goals until they collide in surprising and often violent ways. What purpose is there to this style in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword besides “it looks cool?” If the answer is nothing, then you have to actually commit to a style-over-substance approach that makes me admire how great everything looks.
But this movie is filmmed almost entirely in gunmetal gray and dogshit brown, before switching to dark as pitch for the final 20 minutes of the film. So the stylistic choice just keeps distracting me with its pervasiveness from the characters and story. Not like there’s much character to go into, because as previously established, so much shit in this film that you barely get time to know any of the major players in this piece. I only knew characters because their actor was famous like Djimon Hounsou or Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) or because of how they looked (the pudgy British guy or the kung fu master…yes there’s a kung fu master in medieval Briton, and yet it’s the least ridiculous idea in this film) or David Beckham appearing out of nowhere as an evil guard. You only really get to know Arthur, and, mercifully, this is the film’s greatest strength based on casting choice alone.
Charlie Hunnam has a ton of charisma to share, and he injects as much personality as he can while being aided with a script that fleshes out his character to a somewhat interesting degree. Another odd choice, that I kind of liked, was the decision to have all the characters talk like East Londoners in the 21st century with such choice dialogue pieces of “taking the piss” and “wankers.” At least it’s a little bit more layered than Jude Law’s Vortigren, who might as well be Scar from The Lion King in terms of obviously evil he’s being. The guy’s just not very interesting even though he’s in the film a lot, but sadly Law isn’t given anything to do but scowl and look all shifty-eyed until he transforms into a video game boss at the very end…
Ok, I’m not going to spoil the climax to this film, but Jesus Christ can all the problems with pacing and action this film had be summed up in these last few minutes. See, Excalibur in this film grants the wielder immeasurable power by being able to take on an army single-handedly. Not a bad idea for an Arthur film, but the problem is that all the fight scenes are shot in absolute darkness that you could barely tell what the hell is going on half the time. And the computer generated effects are just plain badly done, especially when giant monsters start showing up out of nowhere…oh yeah they’re are bunch of those too. You might be curious as to why you didn’t see any of them in the trailers, and the polite reason may be because they look like absolute ass. Seriously, this was some The Great Wall kind of CG that looks atrocious. And to cap this whole thing off, you’re treated to a literal final boss fight straight out of a video game, specifically one that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dark Souls game.
I barely found anything to like in this film outside of the script, some of the story ideas, and Charlie Hunnam. As a whole, this film isn’t good. Not one bit. However, for those few ideas I pointed out as a positive, I’m willing to bet some will like these ideas enough to forgive it…unless you’re a diehard King Arthur fan. In which case, avoid this shit like the plague. Everybody else, this is a low…