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Josh Reviews King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

June 9th, 2017
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I’m not sure why Hollywood keeps insisting on making King Arthur movies.  Is it the allure of a known name, in the way that studios chase after franchises and keep remaking and rebooting series with a recognizable title?  Personally, I have never been all that interested in the King Arthur mythos, and I have not actually seen too many Arthur movies.  The early trailers didn’t make this new version, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, look all that interesting to me.  But I enjoy the work of director Guy Ritchie, and though his films can be hit-or-miss, I am always intrigued to see what he has done with his latest project.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword creates a new mythology, casting the Arthur story as taking place in the midst of a conflict between mages (magicians) and humans.  Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), is able to defeat the villainous mage Mordred.  But soon after, Uther and his wife are murdered by Uther’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who takes the crown.  Young Arthur escapes and is raised in a whorehouse in Londinium.  He grows up to be a savvy and tough young man, able to carve out a comfortable niche for himself within the low-level crime taking place in the city.  But when he crosses a group of Vikings under King Vortigern’s protection, he comes under the King’s scrutiny and Vortigern soon discovers Arthur’s true heritage.  Though Arthur initially wants nothing to do with any sort of struggle for the crown, he is soon drawn into the fight.

While I can’t recommend King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as a great movie, neither is it as bad as I had heard.  I found myself entertained by the film, and engaged with the story.  It’s a perfectly fine, fun film.  But neither is it a film that seems to have much reason for existing.  Did we need yet another version of the Arthur story?  What does this film add that we haven’t seen before in other films?  True, this fantasy-epic version of the Arthur story does incorporate a lot of weird new ideas, but while these ideas might be new for the Arthur story, they feel rather derivative of so many other fantasy films from recent years, most specifically Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  (The giant elephants with villain fighters on their back from The Return of the King even make an appearance in King Arthur’s opening sequence!)

What is more genuinely new to the story is taking the fantastical and historical aspects of the story and wrapping it up in Guy Ritchie’s very modern, fast-talking, street-level-crime style of storytelling.  There are a few moments when Mr. Ritchie’s style shines through and really makes this material sing.  (My favorite is an early sequence in which Arthur is, somewhat evasively, answering the questions of one of the soldiers responsible for keeping order in the city, and we get a fast-paced and witty peek into several of the criminal activities in which Arthur is involved, and the cadre of characters who surround him.)  But Mr. Ritchie hasn’t as thoroughly transformed this King Arthur story through the prism of his style as he did in the more successful (creatively and financially) Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jr. in 2009.  (The first film, not the less-interesting sequel A Game of Shadows.)  That Sherlock Holmes film felt like a radical reinvention of a Holmes movie, while also creating a fully-realized and convincing world and group of characters surrounding Holmes.  This Arthur film, on the other hand, often feels like a standard fantasy film with some Guy Ritchie moments jammed in.  I love those individual moments, but in the context of the film they don’t really work.

The film also feels, like so many modern blockbusters, like a truncated version of the story.  The film feels like it’s missing a half-hour of character work and plot connections.  I love Guy Ritchie’s montages, and I just mentioned the terrific early montage of Arthur talking to the soldier/cop.  But there’s a mid-movie montage, in which Arthur travels through some sort of magical “Blacklands” and fights monsters and gets injured, that can’t possibly be the original way this story was supposed to have been told.  It’s like we’re watching 20 minutes in the middle of the movie on fast-forward.  The montage itself has some clever bits, but when it’s over I was left scratching my head as to what Arthur actually accomplished in the Blacklands, and how he got injured.  (These injuries seems major, as for the next chunk of the movie we see Arthur recovering from them, but I have no idea what actually happened to Arthur!! It’s very weird.)

There are all sorts of similarly bizarre story-telling choices, which often feel to me like the product of late-stage re-editing.  Why does Vortigern get a nosebleed and a headache when Mordred uses his power?  This pops up a few times in the film and feels like it was an important plot point in an earlier version of the film/script, but in the finished version there is no real explanation for this.  Another example of this type of confusion is the way the film skips from the prologue with Arthur’s father Uther’s victory over Mordred, and then Vortigern’s betrayal, to then showing us people trying to pull a sword out of a stone.  We know that sword is Uther’s sword that we saw in the prologue, but the movie doesn’t actually show us how the sword got in the stone!  What a weird choice, which results in audience confusion rather than clear story-telling.  (When we finally see how the sword got in the stone, later in the movie, it is a cool moment, and I wonder if holding this reveal until late in the film was intentional, as a way of hiding that surprise moment.  It might have been, but I don’t think it was worth the confusion that results in the beginning.)

The film has a strong cast, but doesn’t take the time needed to flesh out the characters.  I love Charlie Hunnam (I’ve been a fan ever since Undeclared), and he is charismatic enough to hold our attention as the lead, and he does a great job delivering Guy Ritchie’s dialogue.  (The screenplay was written by Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, and Joby Harold.)  But the film doesn’t allow us to get to know this Arthur on more than a superficial level.  He’s a relatively passive player in the story, and we never really see what he’s thinking or feeling about everything that’s going on.  We know he’s sad when some friends get killed, and he doesn’t have much of an interest in being king.  That’s about it.  Because of the familiar structures of the film, we sort of assume that he’s a criminal with a heart of gold, but we don’t really see that, nor do we see Arthur truly tested or forced to choose between what might be easy versus what he knows to be right.

Jude Law was so great in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, but here is is stuck as a flat, one-dimensional villain.  We’ve seen this character (the hero’s jealous brother who betrays the hero in an attempt to claim power) so many times before, and neither Mr. Law nor Mr. Ritchie are able to add anything new.  Djimon Hounsou plays Sir Bedevere, and Mr. Hounsou brings great gravitas to the role, but what can you tell me about this character after seeing the film except that he doesn’t like Vortigern (Jude Law)?  There is no character here.  Similarly, Aiden Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones) is fun to watch as the character “Goosefat” Bill, but we don’t ever learn anything about who this character is, what he wants (other than Vortigern dead), and what he thinks about anything happening around him.  Eric Bana is terrific as always as Uther Pendragon, and Mr. Bana is able to give the character a nobility and heroism in his few scenes, but here too this role is an archetype (the noble, now-dead king/father) and not really a character.  There are many other less-famous but nonetheless-great actors who populate the other characters in the film, but sadly none of them have much dimension either.

I love the look of the film.  This is a full-blown fantasy epic, and the sets and costumes and props and weaponry are all brought to life with incredible care and attention to detail.  The film is jam-packed with visual effects, giving us all sorts of expansive vistas, from Uther/Vortigern’s enormous castle to the sprawling slum-like city of Londinium.  The opening battle with Mordred, featuring the giant elephants as mentioned above, is terrific, a great slam-bang fantasy battle.

I just wish all of that incredible effort had been in service of a film that worked better, or that had more of a reason for being.  To return to the questions I posed earlier in this review, I find myself wondering why does this film exist?  Is it just an attempt to make money off of a familiar property (King Arthur)?  At one point, did it seem to someone that Guy Ritchie and his team had an exciting new vision of how to tell this story?  Since the whole mage-versus-human fantasy aspect of the film does feel like a new idea, a big part of me wishes they had jettisoned the King Arthur aspects of the story (which wind up being very minimal in the film), given the characters original names, forgotten the “sword in the stone” bit, and made an original fantasy film.  That might have made the studios nervous (it’s easier to sell a film based on a familiar name), but to me would have made this film feel like a more worthwhile undertaking, telling an original fantasy story rather than just one more version of the so-often-told Arthur story.  I try not to judge a film on what I wish it was, rather than what it is, but I found myself returning to this thought ever since seeing the film.

I also try not to judge a film by its title, but you can begin to see King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’s problems right there in its title.  Why is there that useless, generic subtitle?  What does Legend of the Sword tell us about this film that King Arthur doesn’t?  My suspicion is that the studio hoped that this film might jumpstart a series of King Arthur films, which could each be called King Arthur with a different subtitle.  This sort of aiming-for-a-franchise filmmaking rarely works.

I’ve been very critical of this film, but I do want to emphasize what I stated at the beginning that I did NOT hate this film!  I had a rather fun time watching it!  There is a lot to enjoy in this film.  Just don’t go in expecting anything all that new and interesting.  You can predict how this film will go after the first five minutes.  But for a familiar story, there is enough skill in the telling, and enough fun little Guy Ritchie moments, to be able to enjoy it.  Just don’t hope for anything more than a pleasing diversion.

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