English filmmaker Guy Ritchie forged his reputation for street-wise wit, macho whimsy, and quirky crime-capers with the one-two punch of Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Then he extrapolated this vibe into rockling, action-packed pair of Sherlock Holmes-centered blockbusters, and the saucy ’60-set spy romp Man From U.N.C.L.E. But when working his signature style into the fantasy realm of Camelot, Ritchie fails spectacularly. And his dizzying mismanagement of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the only spectacular thing about it.
This wannabe epic is at once bloated and rushed, cramming in a mini-series worth of plot and characters into an unsatisfying and very confusing two hours and nine minutes. As it starts, title cards hastily introduce us to a world of mortals and mages, meaning some people can do magic. Then comes the war, where rampaging armored mammoths led by a scowling evil mage mercilessly attack the good king Uther’s castle. From there, Uther (Eric Bana) single-handedly defeats this army, wins the war, debates post-victory strategy, but then is slain by his power-thirsty brother Vortigern (Jude Law). However, Uther’s young son, and Vortigern’s lone rival for the throne, is whisked away down river, and fatefully taken in by a gaggle of sex workers, who collectively raise him in a brothel to be a big strapping hustler on the rough streets of Londinium. This is Arthur (Charlie Hunnam). And all of this happens before the film’s title even hits the screen.
It’s not until after this prolonged and dour opening that King Arthur: Legend of The Sword begins feeling anything like a Ritchie movie. Sure, a slapdash montage that races through Arthur’s hard-knocks childhood includes some speed ramps of doors closing, and conspiratorial glances between smooth operators. But things don’t get rolling–or remotely amusing–until Arthur and his rough-and-tumble buddies are interrogated by one of the king’s guards. Finally, the banter comes fast and furious, with plenty of irreverence, slang, and smirks. But because it wasn’t set up in the opening, Ritchie’s signature speech style feels jarring in the mouths of these medieval men.
As Arthur reluctantly gears up to confront his fate and his dastardly uncle, King Arthur: Legend of The Sword goes to war with itself, clashing nearly every other sequence on what movie it wants to be. One moment, there’s dedicatedly stern discussions of strategy and succession, then comes biting, brotherly banter. The next, there’s slippery, sinister sea sirens hissing horrible promises to the evil king. The next, I dunno, how Hunnam punching the air, alone in his room, shirtless and howling for no apparent reason as industrial music blares? Rather than establishing chapters that could justify the tone shifts like Deadpool did, King Arthur: Legend of The Sword seems to randomly determine the next scene’s tone by the role of a D20. Experiencing this jumbled adventure felt less like I was watching a movie, and more like being subjected to the channel-surfing whims of a hyper-active child.
Further muddying King Arthur: Legend of The Sword are the film’s desperate attempts to establish a sprawling world of magic, knights and monsters for the additional movies it’s meant to spawn. But in aiming big, this aspiring franchise forgets that audiences demand characters to care about before they’ll line up for sequels. And this origin story offers us little to lock into. To their credit, Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen and Djimon Hounsou bring some verve and menace. But by and large the lot of Arthur’s allies are interchangeable and forgettable, relegated mostly awing over him and of his super-powered sword, Excalibur.
A surprising disappointment, Jude Law (The Young Pope) turns in a bizarrely restrained performance as the wicked king. If ever there was a movie that could benefit from the scene-chewing of a wildly malicious villain, it’s this. Still, he sparked the only laugh I had for this banal adventure, when he screamed an interrogation into the freshly severed ear a captured rebel. But the bigger issue here is Hunnam, and that he’s no Jason Statham.
Earnest, rugged and handsome, this English ingendude has been pushed as the next big thing in Hollywood with films like Pacific Rim, The Lost City of Z and now this. But Hunnam lacks that bad boy charm that’d make his anti-hero’s actions fun or roguishly cool. Instead Hunnam comes off as smug and selfish, and he isn’t helped by a script that has Arthur jumping line, leering at his only female ally, and initially shrugging off his destiny because who needs the hassle, right? It’s easy to imagine Statham in the role, swaggering and smirking, winning us over in spite of Arthur’s bad behavior. But with Hunnam, this smug shtick gets old fast, then festers. Which makes the one person who can’t stand him becomes the film’s standout. And she doesn’t even get a name.
Spanish ingenue Astrid Bergès-Frisbey plays “The Mage.” An associate of the unseen Merlin, she’s younger, hotter and more female than the typical movie wizard. Yet we’re thankfully spared a painful romance subplot where Arthur defeats her distaste for his cringe-inducing flirtations. Instead, the pair become grudging allies, with her brooding and casting spells and mind-controlling beasts, and him whirling his sword about some more. Unfortunately, the action scenes look like something out of a video game trailer, not a big-budget feature film.
A clearly CGI Hunnam spins around in a winding “long take,” beating back anonymous minions single-handedly. The artifice is so apparent that it pulls you out of the film, and that’s when you can see the action at all. Peak violence like dismemberment, throat-slitting, and impalement all happen offscreen, deadening their visual impact, but mercenarily maintaining that box office-friendly PG-13. Most galling is one battle in particular; after setting up a major confrontation between fully armored and armed kings soldiers and the unarmed warriors in a humble martial arts studio (because why not?), the actual fight scene is infuriately obscured with dust. Instead of awe-inspiring action, you get Hunnam glowering in close-up as he slo-mo swings that sword some more. In a word, it’s boring; in two, it’s boring and ugly.
Ultimately, King Arthur: Legend of The Sword is a toothless and incoherent, offering a violent tale with no blood, and a legendary story without logic or heart. The scrappy appeal of Ritchie’s early films is swallowed among the solemn expectations of this genre. So his signature charms are drowned amid sloppy set pieces and requisite groundwork for a sequel that this critic prays will never surface.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens May 12.
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