Man, has it really been 13 years since the Clive Owen-led King Arthur movie flopped at the box office? It seems every generation has its bellwether Arthurian screen adaptation, and with it, like layers of soil, we can check out all of the minerals and weird shit left over and make vastly silly judgements about that era.
That movie, directed on a still-high-on-his-Training Day-supply Antoine Fuqua, is super notable for having a supporting cast that went on to become significantly more famous than its stars ever were, and was a part of a slate of ill-advised Lord of the Rings cash-ins that would hit over the next couple of years. Go back further and you’ll see: The ’90s had First Knight (and a terrible Richard Gere hair-do), the ’80s had probably the best modern adaptation in John Boorman’s Excalibur, and the ’60s had Camelot, a movie so of its era and of particular relevance to the tragedies within the tumult of that era that it’s still hard to totally process out of context. This Friday, the 3D era gets its first big Arthurian blockbuster, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which gets a shaggy and colon-sporting title as a sign of its recency.
It’s not very good.
You know the tale, but Legend of the Sword is here to say that you don’t know the whole truth, my dude. The film begins with good and just King Uther (Eric Bana), taking down some fuckin’ war elephants with Excalibur before they can reach and destroy Camelot, and would be properly righteous if it had some life in it. Uther, of course, gets murked by his bro Vortigern (Jude Law), who, because of a deal he made with the dude who Uther dispatches in the prologue, gets to transform into a Dark Souls boss. His young son barely escapes with his life on a small dinghy after witnessing his father’s death, and sails to London(ium), where he’s adopted by a loving group of prostitutes who seemingly realize right off the bat that he’s a Moses analogue. Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) comes of age in the backrooms of brothels, and uses his wit and cunning to establish a criminal empire on the streets of the city. But one day, the waters near Camelot drain, and reveal Uther’s sword, Excalibur, embedded in stone, lying in wait for the one who the one who can pull it from its rocky scabbard. Vortigern (that name never gets easier to type) demands that all young men of the appropriate age of the “boy king” try their hand at pulling it from the stone, and you know where this is going, so let’s get onto the analysis.
Fresh off of a career high performance in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, Hunnam is actually pretty good here. He’s underserved by a story that sticks way too close to the Hollywood “hero’s journey” story arc structure (and we know how Arthur’s story is partially the basis for Campbell’s concept, but applied to the small scale machinations of how he became King it just doesn’t work as effectively here), and once the violence starts in the third act there’s just not much for him to chew, but he’s eminently likable as a rakish Arthur, who takes his cues less from Connery than from Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. Law’s stuck between wanting to embrace the camp like the wonderful ham that he is (a Reservoir Dogs callback provides the film’s best laugh), and being the generic grumpy fantasy villain who can do magic shit that we’ve all seen a thousand times. Bana’s in the movie, has creative things happen to him during his death sequence, but he’s just not a real presence here. The supporting players, such as Djimon Hounsou and Game of Thrones’ Aiden Killian, are fine and serviceable. Oh, and the women here are either literally whores, informants, monsters, sacrificed, murdered or ethereal physical manifestations of greater power, so Marion Zimmer Bradley devotees will be instantaneously disappointed. If you’re looking for something a little more progressive, please buy a ticket to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
The action is painfully generic and bland, with bits and pieces of Zack Synder-style speed-ramping comprising much of the moments in which Arthur unleashes the full power of Excalibur on some dumb motherfuckers, and bloodless cartoony violence everywhere else. It’s the hill where many aspiring fantasy filmmakers die on, and if Duncan Jones can’t craft a visually interesting and engaging battle sequence, it’s hard to expect Ritchie to do so. The world surrounding the characters isn’t either. The truly fantastic touches range from the ripped-off-from-GOT (our lady in the group, a mage, can control animals) to the occasionally cool creature design (the tempting octowomen that lead Law’s character in the darkness are fantastically imagined), but otherwise “realism” is the driving aesthetic force, with it’s dark blues, high shutter speeds, and shitloads of mud. This makes the 3D version a nightmare for the viewer (they were able to design pokey gags for the format, but totally unable to light for it?), and you’ll have to spend three-quarters of the film straining to see minor details if you choose that version. Plus, Ritchie’s penchant for snap-zooms are literally nauseating in 3D, so please stay the fuck away from that.
There’s a kernel of a good idea buried in between the repeated flashbacks to Uther’s murder and Arthur’s continuous refuting the call to action; namely that Arthur and his Knights started out life as common hoods running a racket in the slums of Londonium, and it’s easy to see why Ritchie would gravitate towards this project, given that he’s had such success with that type of “gang” in the past. The movie’s at its most effective when he’s allowed to go whole-hog with his traditional style, but those moments are few and far in between; in one particular sequence early on, where Arthur and his men are being interrogated by a Knight about their threatening a group of Vikings in town to do business, and it’s great. Great enough, in fact, to remind you what Ritchie’s strengths are as a filmmaker — dynamic dialogue and editing working in service of creating a palpable rhythm — and also enough to disappoint you when the structure of the modern fantasy film won’t just let him be him.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword embodies all of the issues with studio-controlled tentpole filmmaking, from its 3D conversion all the way down to its miserably boring story structure, and those issues suffocate what good lies beneath (Hunnam’s performance and Ritchie’s occasionally entertaining filmmaking). Like each Arthurian film before it, this one is of its era, and unlike some, just can’t transcend it.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.