By: Hawk Ripjaw (Four Beers) –
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens with an evil mage mind-controlling giant rampaging elephants to demolish the kingdom of King Uther (Eric Bana). Because he possesses the sword of Excalibur, Uther easily defeats the mage, and saves the kingdom. Meanwhile, Uther’s jealous brother Vortigern (Jude Law) conspires with bloodthirsty, wish-granting octopus ladies to take the throne late at night by force. Concerned only for the safety of his family, Uther gets his wife and his son, Arthur, to the boat to escape. Suddenly, a creature that looks like Shao Khan on fire throws a spear and murders his mother (Happy Mother’s Day!) and proceeds to defeat his father in a duel. The boat drifts away with the surprise-orphaned Arthur aboard.
Years later, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), lives life on the streets of Londinium, eventually getting arrested and shipped out to where Excalibur is encased in stone. Arthur successfully removes the sword, which fulfills the prophecy and frightens Vortigern to attempt to publicly execute Arthur. This is thwarted by Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), a mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), Bill (Aidan Gillen), and Percival (Craig McGinlay), who help Arthur escape to their hideout. There, they explain that Arthur is the chosen one to defeat Vortigern, whose lust for power and influence surpasses that of the Dark Lord Sauron, and that only Arthur can save the kingdom. Since this is the first of a six-movie series, Arthur accepts the challenge (eventually), and then a whole bunch of other really trippy stuff happens.
It took until the second trailer for me to really start noticing this movie, but when I did, my attention was locked on one thing: this shit is gonna get wacky. Magic, weird sound editing, and giant monsters? I will always take those odds if it means another Winter’s Tale or Gods of Egypt. Turns out, it partially is, though frustratingly it doesn’t go all the way. It’s true that there are, in small doses, moments that tickle that little part of your brain that enjoys unfiltered dumb ideas in bad action movies, and the Grandmaster of Shit, Akiva Goldsman himself, is a main producer on the film. There is genuine fun to be had here. The villains are excessively reprehensible in a way that makes them great fun to hate, particularly Jude Law taking his already-sinister The Young Pope character and dialing it up even further as the new king (he cuts off a dude’s ear and speaks into it!!). There’s a ridiculous, heavy metal aesthetic to everything, and every time the mage starts working her sorcery, it borders on hilarity.
When it works, some of the best moments come in the way that Ritchie edits exchanges of dialogue together, or paints a sequence of events just slightly out of order, so there’s a pleasant sense of calculated chaos to these scenes. Daniel Pemberton, who hasn’t done much but has done good work (Steve Jobs), assembles an earth-shaking, breathlessly propulsive soundtrack. Thanks to him, energy courses through the film when it counts, and the interplay of the instruments and editing makes the action sequences pop even more.
Part of what feels so off about King Arthur is the initial sense that this style doesn’t gel well with this genre. Richie’s trademark frenetic visuals are manhandled, kicking and screaming, into the framework of the Arthur story, and shockingly it often works, even though apart from Snatch, this is the Ritchiest Guy Ritchie has ever been. But the union is a house of cards, and if just one piece of each sequence isn’t firing at full capacity, the entire scene loses its impact and feels like all bluster with little impact. But when every element does come together effectively, it’s an outright symphony of madness.
Unfortunately, the editing doesn’t always play to the movie’s favor, and this is most noticeable in the movie’s first act, where a terrific action setpiece is followed by a few scenes of setup so poorly edited together, they actually feel like one of those “Previously On” prologues for television season finales. The death of Arthur’s mother is so hamfisted it’s almost comedic: in ultra slow-motion, she falls out of the frame, and a small-sized title card in 90s PC adventure game font appears in the same shot as the soundtrack kicks in.
King Arthur is fueled almost exclusively by its kinetic action, and Ritchie’s busy, aggressive direction leaves no breathing room for the characters. Names and personalities serve no purpose other than to be another player in the next action sequence, and few of the characters evolve beyond a simple defining characteristic, with only Arthur’s friend Back Lack (Neil Maskell) providing any sort of meaningful connection to the audience. Without some of the crazy ideas and Ritchie’s style, this would completely fall apart.
For all of the visual whimsy, madcap editing, and heart-thumping sound, it fails to actually be compelling, because pretty much everyone in this movie is a dick trying to be a bigger dick than everyone else. It’s hard to root for Arthur, because all he does treat everyone like shit and punch people for money to give to the prostitutes that raised him. This is where the movie runs into problems with Guy Ritchie’s style: everyone is a hardened, tough guy badass that won’t take any shit from anyone else. Putting half of them in a room together results in swagger and dick measuring that gets old quickly, and dissolves any connection to them.
King Arthur lumbers along, clumsy and overstuffed with enough plot to make an entire trilogy, with plot shortcomings hastily disguised at nearly every turn by Ritchie’s hyperactive, visceral style. The entire thing is doused in fever-dream visuals and otherworldly CGI creatures. It’s an epic, heavy metal medieval head trip, every second engineered for concussive, rattling impact. However, it doesn’t commit fully to the nuggets of inspired weirdness sprinkled about, so the end result is a weird, patchwork action picture that works on several different levels but fails to establish a consistent synergy with them. It’s pretty bad, but it’s kind of entertaining too.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time someone says “sword” or “king.”
Take a Drink: every time a mage’s eyes change color.
Do a Shot: whenever someone bellows in slow motion.
Take a Drink: whenever you can’t fully understand a line of dialogue.
Do a Shot: for every shot that looks like the cover to a metal album.