KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD Review
Director: Guy Ritchie
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Guy Ritchie’s career in film has followed an odd trajectory, starting with Jason Statham fistfighting with London gangsters, peaking with Sherlock Holmes fistfighting with London gangsters, and getting married to Madonna somewhere in the middle (presumably with fistfights and London gangsters). Britain’s Tarantino hit a bit of a dip with THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., but that hasn’t stopped him from making a second attempt to break into the blockbuster world. With KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, Ritchie tries to maintain a sense of normalcy by balancing out the heightened production values with a return to more familiar ground, specifically in which the first King of England fistfights with London gangsters. But not even all the whip pans and fast talk in the realm can disguise the fact that Ritchie is playing with power beyond his control.
LEGEND OF THE SWORD triggers several red flags right out the starting gate. Following a text crawl ripped straight out of the instruction manual of a ‘90s CD-ROM, catching the viewer up on the politics of men and mages, we’re treated to a rehash of the Oliphant battle from RETURN OF THE KING, except replace Minas Tirith with—, actually no, it’s pretty much identical. Eric Bana’s King Uther Pendragon saves England from the pachyderm menace to the somber tune from that HALO 3: ODST commercial Rupert Sanders directed, only to be betrayed by his jealous brother, Vortigern (Jude Law). After feeding his wife to Ursula from THE LITTLE MERMAID, Vortigern gains the power to become a boss from DARK SOULS and eliminates Uther, the Queen, and their entire castle in a bout of extreme overkill. Only Uther’s son, Arthur, is able to escape the carnage, fleeing to London and growing up to be a streetwise pimp played by Charlie Hunnam. And that’s when, at the point where most films have already begun their second act, we get our opening credits.
And they say games emulate movies
Conceptually, LEGEND OF THE SWORD is troubled in many ways, never sure of what story it wants to tell. The rest of the movie serves as an origin story for Arthur, showing how he overthrows Vortigern’s oppressive regime by mastering the power of Excalibur. But if this is the tale of how Arthur gained the title of “King,” why does he get less screentime than his uncle Vortigern? And why is King Arthur’s uncle the most memorable character in a movie entitled KING ARTHUR? Given all the quirky and memorable London gangsters Ritchie has brought us, LEGEND OF THE SWORD stands easily as his most bland cast to date, as not a single member of the Round Table leaves a lasting impression.
I’d like to say the crisis of identity ends there, but there is also the issue that Ritchie doesn’t know what kind of movie he wants to make. For every rapid fire bit of banter between Arthur and his chums, there are two more scenes of him slapping about Vortigern’s lackeys with Excalibur in clunky, heavily-edited sequences that undermine Ritchie’s strengths. I get what Ritchie was going for: that Arthur’s enchanted blade grants him such immense power that not even an army could stand against it, and to face such an opponent would be utterly confounding. When Excalibur comes out, it summons a storm of dust and debris that stuns Arthur’s foes while he flies around knocking dudes through walls. We see these fights from the perspective of the hapless cannon fodder sent after Arthur, and while the overwhelming disorientation likely let Ritchie cut corners in realizing these scenes, it also makes them incredibly hard to follow. At best, these sloppy scraps make for a dull watch. At worst, they drown out LEGEND OF THE SWORD’s few great moments.
Watson falls into some dark shit in SHERLOCK HOLMES 3
Case in point: arguably the only good action sequence takes place about halfway through the film, where Arthur and his merry band must run across London to escape Vortigern’s guards after a botched mission. Our heroes alternate between ambushing some patrols and blending in to avoid others, splitting up and reuniting as they parkour over buildings. It’s chaotic, but in a fun, digestible manner, closer to SHERLOCK HOLMES than the hideous genre-grafting seen elsewhere in LEGEND OF THE SWORD. This is thanks in large part to the pounding, percussive score that pervades the film (one of the few indisputably strong suites of the film), as well as some rather quirky camerawork. More than any other part of the LEGEND OF THE SWORD, this segment actually feels like a Guy Ritchie joint, and it’s all the better for it.
Eventually, Arthur’s group gets cornered by the goons in a dojo, and they prepare to make their final stand. It’s one of the few genuinely exciting moments of the film, and Arthur takes a fat dump on it by pulling out Excalibur and kicking up a cacophonous, CG-fueled dirt storm that flies in the face of the entirely practical sequence that preceded it. The resolution to this sequence isn’t only anti-climatic, it is utterly bewildering in its laziness when compared to the footage that precedes it. It’s disappointments like these that demonstrate how incongruous Ritchie’s off-the-wall style is with the big budget megaliths that he appears too desperate to erect these days. I’m not saying Ritchie should give up on blockbusters (I rather liked A GAME OF SHADOWS), but fantasy has been a film genre in decline for a while now. If WARCRAFT can’t bring it back, then the Guy known mostly for SNATCH and LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS certainly won’t. He’s simply become too strongly attached to a specific style of filmmaking, one that doesn’t gel at all with this genre that he has bizarrely decided to tackle.
“I’ll just remake ROCKNROLLA, but this time as a superhero movie where everyone has the plague.”
I’ll give LEGEND OF THE SWORD credit for, in a page taken from Monty Python, giving us something completely different from every other tale of Camelot we’ve previously seen, even if just about every visual cue was lifted from some of the biggest fantasy staples of the 21st century. Then again, I could say the same for Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 spin on the Arthur story, and that is anything but a compliment. In the end, LEGEND OF THE SWORD is unnecessarily frustrating. Excellent production design meets underwhelming digital effects, great actors are trapped in half-realized roles, and the director with one of the most identifiable personal brands is paired with one of the year’s most generic scripts. Here’s hoping Ritchie pulls himself together for the live-action ALADDIN. If not for himself, then at least for all the London gangsters that will no doubt inhabit it.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend