Over the years, there have been many iterations of Arthurian legend, from tales about King Arthur himself, to spin-offs involving his knights of the round table. There’s a reason it’s a timeless tale and why actors have killed to play these parts. It’s a story about characters with gravitas, engaging fantastical elements and transfixing world-building – essentially what EXCALIBUR delivered back in 1981. We’ve seen almost every kind of this story: animated fare (THE SWORD IN THE STONE, QUEST FOR CAMELOT, SHREK THE THIRD), musicals (CAMELOT), melodrama (KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE), action-driven spectacular (KING ARTHUR), comedy (A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT), comedic parody (MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL) and young adult fodder (YOUNG ARTHUR starring a baby-faced Viggo Mortenson). How does one make it new, let alone unique? It’s up to a visionary director to do so. The latest in line for the box office throne is co-writer/ director Guy Ritchie’s dark and sooty retelling, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD. And much like Warner Brothers’ pre-fab/ public domain offering from last summer, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, this again leaves us wondering, “Who asked for this?!”
Ritchie, along with co-screenwriters Lionel Wigram (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) and Joby Harold, who all work from a story by Harold and David Dobkin (THE JUDGE), reimagines Arthur (Charlie “hubba hubba” Hunnam) as a strikingly generic chosen-one trope. They take great pains to emphasize that this isn’t your grandfather’s King Arthur. He’s not even your father’s. He’s a street thug, raised by a prostitute, haunted by the memories of a past he doesn’t recognize – one that involves his ruthless, magic-corrupted, power-hungry uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) murdering Arthur’s mom Queen Igraine (Poppy Delevingne) and dad King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). Arthur’s adult world is peppered with Ritchie’s hallmarks in case you forgot what kind of movie you were watching (which it never allows you to forget): low-lifes with weird names like Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Back Lack (Neil Maskell); bare-chested brawling (like in SHERLOCK HOLMES and Ritchie’s own practice of the martial arts); and his signature, vulgar, auteurish camera aesthetics. As Arthur’s tested by “Excalibur,” the sword stuck in the stone, his motivations are noticeably changed from previous iterations. He’d rather not be the one of which the prophesy speaks. The rest of the predictable Campbell-ian hero’s journey is filled with montage after montage, flashback after flashback (to add energy as it’s lifeless without them) and a healthy dose of exposition.
The lone saving grace in Ritchie’s epic vision is composer Daniel Pemberton’s score. While it is overbearingly obtuse, at least it’s got an undeniable heartbeat. The way he creates momentous, electrifying pieces using unconventional instrumentations like chainmail, a handful of coins, and heavy breath is clever. It just deserves a better film.
Why? Why was this made? Why now? Who wanted to see this? These questions continually swirled around in my brain beyond the two hour run time. More questions emerge, leading to further frustration. After the second big montage, where we see Arthur battling CGI creatures, attempting to control the magical sword, he reunites with his Londonium pals and I thought, “How did they get there?” and “Eh who cares,” within seconds of each other. The squad’s monotone Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) adds nothing, as she’s leaden, cold and cardboard in her performance. All this movie did was exacerbate my pet peeve on the way magic is utilized – or rather not utilized – in films like these. You have magic? Use it from the start! Conveniently her powers aren’t called upon until all the street fighting has exhausted itself, or for third act contrivance. It’s simply tiresome every time you see her eyes turn pitch black, or turn to animal pupils, or her hands clench like she’s stricken with a temporary palsy.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that this film is filled with vapid, hollow characters. It’s all narrative-driven action with a cookie-cutter story. Potentially interesting folkloric characters like Merlin and the Lady of the Lake are relegated to montage cameos, where in prior films, they are fully fleshed out characters not solely used to bolster the chosen one’s arc. The noble sentiment imposed by the filmmakers is that for every negative action, an opposite positive force is also created. It’s just too bad its paint-by-numbers way of screenwriting has to overstate it. Ritchie also makes room for a David Beckham cameo appearance as subtle as an anvil drop. His own cameo is handled even worse. Plus, the roundtable’s appearance is ham-fisted and egregious, with characters saying, “Hey what’s this? A big wheel of cheese?!”
Please make it stop. I’ve had enough. Some legends are better left buried.
KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD opens on May 12.