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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

It’s a tale with no one canonical account, so old and trod over that there’s no telling where history ends and legend begins. But at the core of it all is a classic story of a king who rises to defend his people and build a utopian reign. King Arthur, who invented the Round Table so he and his comrades in arms could meet and talk with each other as equals. He who ruled with honor, backed by the power of the greatest magician who ever lived. All of this undone by the pride, vanity, paranoia, and incompetence of Arthur and those around him. Yet Camelot fell with the promise that one day, in our time of greatest need, a king would rise to bring it back again.

It’s such a universal tale so deeply woven into Western civilization that it seems like every generation has its own take on Arthurian lore. There was Knights of the Round Table in 1954, a colorful period romp made in imitation of established Oscar winners and popular westerns of the time. (For comparison, it bears no small resemblance to The Court Jester, released only a year later.) Ten years later, we got The Sword in the Stone at a time when Disney animation was more or less the only game in town when it came to fantasy. At least, that’s how it was in cinema — 1960 brought us the “Camelot” musical and its 1967 film adaptation, both of which are still more or less the gold standard for pop culture portrayals of Arthurian legend. It certainly didn’t hurt that the administration and assassination of President John F. Kennedy were so widely paralleled with the rise and fall of Camelot.

Then the late ’70s came along, a time when pop culture was being reshaped by the peers of Spielberg and Lucas. This highly experimental period gave us the fast-paced parody of Monty Python and the Holy Grail while also yielding the three-hour epic Excalibur. And this is where things start to go downhill.

The ’90s and its predilection toward romantic comedies (Pretty WomanYou’ve Got MailSleepless in Seattle, etc.) brought us First Knight, which focused on the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle. It sucked. A decade later, King Arthur (2004) came out just after The Lord of the Rings trilogy made cinematic high fantasy popular again, and the “gritty reboot” phase was on the horizon with Batman Begins. Thus we got an adaptation that was more “historically accurate” and thrown away by pop culture at large pretty much immediately.

So here we are with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the first in a planned six-part series chronicling the Arthurian legend. It’s a 3D movie with a reported $175 million budget, with speed-ramping action sequences and visuals drained of all color. Arthur himself (here played by Charlie Hunnam) was raised in the streets, and seeks to lead a revolt of the huddled masses against a tyrant who maintains power through fear and intimidation. Truly, this is a King Arthur for the millennial set. Too bad it sucks so hard. Seriously, where do I even begin?

First of all, this is an adaptation in which a Chinese character (inexplicably named George, and played by Tom Wu) is invented so that Arthur can learn martial arts. We’ve also got a young boy named Blue (played by Bleu Landau) just so he can act stupidly and get kidnapped when the plot needs him to.

(Side note: For those who weren’t aware, “blue” wasn’t even a word in the English language until a good thousand years after Arthur’s time. Not that historical accuracy was ever a serious priority here, it’s just a dead giveaway that the character was an invention of the filmmakers and not part of the original mythos.)

Then we have King Vortigern. While Jude Law certainly looks like he’s having fun and it’s a nice change of pace to see him play a villain for once, the character is so transparently evil and his plan for world domination is so utterly nonsensical that the character simply doesn’t work. To wit, Vortigern has apparently made a deal with demons of some kind so that he can attain power through killing off his loved ones. No matter how hard Law is trying to make this work, it’s been well-established that Vortigern cares for nothing but himself, and his wife and daughter only exist to get killed off for this purpose, so the whole thing falls entirely flat.

Speaking of female characters, let’s talk about the one played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey. I honestly can’t tell if she’s some anonymous mage or if she’s this series’ interpretation of Guinevere, as I’ve seen sources credit her as either one. Which should really tell you something about how well this character is developed.

As an anonymous mage, she serves primarily as a plot device, and indeed proves to be so ridiculously overpowered that she breaks the plot entirely. As Guinevere, she bears precisely zero resemblance to the queen of legend. As with George, Blue, and pretty much every other supporting character, she was invented by the filmmakers for the sake of lazy writing. Why the filmmakers brought her in rather than Merlin, I wish I knew. I will grant that Berges-Frisbey has a very unique kind of stage presence with a nice other-worldly vibe. I can understand how she would make for a convincing sorcerer on paper, especially in contrast with her more mundane surroundings. Unfortunately, she takes to the material like a duck to wet cement, and I hope to God the filmmakers weren’t going for any kind of romance arc with Arthur. Which brings us to our leading man.

Arthur’s arc is your typical monomyth fare, which is perfectly understandable for a character this old and established. The big problem, though, is a recurring one with prequels: This character is only important because the plot says that he’s important. He’s only important because a prophecy says he is. I saw absolutely nothing in this portrayal to make him a convincing leader of armies, the great and noble monarch to build the utopia of Camelot, and I saw nothing to suggest he would ever become that man within a few decades. A key part of this is naturally that Charlie Hunnam doesn’t have the charisma to pass for an A-list actor, much less King freaking Arthur.

(Side note: Yes, I’ve gone on record saying that I love Pacific Rim. But to say that he was the leading man of that film would be like saying that Sam Worthington was the male lead of Avatar: Factually correct, but completely irrelevant. Both movies would’ve been perfectly fine without those actors and you know it.)

I appreciate the difficulty in adapting something that’s not only been done to death a million times, but has also been the basis for countless stories across hundreds of years. Taking something that old and making it new again is no small challenge. But when the solution involves replacing cliches with even dumber cliches, and replacing an established story with a rote one that makes absolutely no sense, that’s not an upgrade. That’s not respectful to the story or to the audience, it’s just stupid and lazy. Seriously, when so much has been altered to such an extent that the Lady of the Lake has to be crowbarred in and Merlin only gets a few passing mentions, something has gone terribly wrong.

The filmmakers may have taken liberties with the source material, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem is that they took out everything dated and replaced it with stuff that was boring, bland, lazy, predictable, and outright stupid. It’s nothing short of pathetic.

I wish I could say the visuals were a saving grace, but no such luck. The editing and camerawork have some delightful touches during montages and expository scenes, but while the lightning-fast back-and-forth style does wonders with scenes of people talking, it’s headache-inducing in the action sequences. Between the CGI, the speed-ramping, the close-ups so extreme that they border on microscopic, and the muddy greyish-brown color palette, the fight scenes are uniformly incomprehensible. And given the aforementioned problems with the plot, it’s not just a matter of “What’s going on?” but also “Why should I care?”

So is there anything good here? Well, the production design is quite impressive, with a scale that’s appropriately epic. Also, Daniel Pemberton’s score passed an important test in that I found myself humming the music when I left the theater. Last but not least, I appreciate the concept of King Arthur as “the people’s king”. It’s hard to make Arthur into a man of the people when he’s the son of royalty and chosen by destiny to take the throne, but the filmmakers put a lot of work into that aspect and it paid off. Such a damn shame that’s the only thing Guy Ritchie could get right.

With every high-budget blockbuster that Ritchie makes, we get that much more proof of why he shouldn’t be making high-budget blockbusters. In the case of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, we get just enough stylish and fast-paced montages, with more than enough gritty street-level happenings to show that this is where Ritchie’s strengths are. Yet Ritchie utterly sucks at epic CGI action scenes, and this film offers more than enough proof. On top of all that, the casting is misguided, the characters are thin, and the script is made of bullshit that’s as brown and bland as the visuals.

To be clear, I don’t hate this film, I just pity it. I feel genuinely sorry for these filmmakers. It’s a worthy but terribly difficult goal trying to make a faithful adaptation of this material for a 21st-century audience. Moreover, the notion of an Arthur who came up from the streets to raise a kingdom for the poorest of his citizens is a perfectly valid interpretation of the character, and one very badly needed for our times.

I sincerely hope we get to see that King Arthur someday. In the meantime, this film is absolutely not recommended.

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