I went into King Arthur: Legend of the Sword fully prepared: while I hadn’t read any reviews, I could only have avoided the negative buzz on this movie by living on Mars, but sometimes that can work in a movie’s favour, especially when it’s rolled out on Blu Ray and VOD. Some movies draw a lot of vituperation out of the wrong kind of people, mostly undeserved, and when you actually get around to watching the movie yourself, you find yourself asking what all the hate was for. Unfortunately, a bad movie is just a bad movie. Last week, I watched The Book of Henry, this week, it was Guy Ritchie’s similarly low-trending effort.
I’ll say that I’m not terribly fond of Ritchie’s style, though it’s not like I automatically don’t like his movies. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, his first movie, remains a career high, though. He’s since morphed into a Hollywood action/adventure director, having directed both of the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes movies, and The Man From UNCLE. The latter was a worldwide flop, and I can’t help think that without the charm of a resurgent RDJ as Holmes, those overplotted messes would have experienced similar fates.
You’ve read the quote (popularly attributed to Einstein) that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Of course, Einstein wasn’t giving a medical opinion, rather making a point about the folly of an unchanging approach that yields little success. It’s an accusation that can be properly levelled at Ritchie, who is in his third decade of making movies, but doesn’t appear to have learned much of anything. King Arthur, if nothing else, plays more like someone who either loves Ritchie’s signature stlye so much they want to blindly replicate it, or someone who hates it so much they want to lampoon it: he movie is a stylistic mess from start to finish, saved only by the visuals.
In this version of the King Arthur story, Charlie Hunnam from TV’s Sons of Anarchy and Pacific Rim, plays Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon (typically bland Eric Bana cameo) and nephew of Jude Law’s Vortigern. When Uther is slain, and child Arthur goes missing, presumed dead, the throne is inherited by Vortigern. Over the years, the legend of the “born king” plagues Vortigern, who undertakes a large scale project to find Arthur, now grown into manhood. When Arthur is finally found, by drawing Excalibur from a stone, he escapes the deadly plans vortigern has, and becomes de facto head of an organization dedicated to overthrowing Vortigern, made up of former allies of Uther. You can fill in the rest yourself.
I have many issues with this movie, both in terms of plot and execution. At its core, this is another “the one” story. Like The Matrix, Wanted, and many other movies you’ve seen, this plot features a quest to find one character in particular who is the only One who can possess the power to destroy the bad guy. This character generally knows nothing about his potential, and undergoes a couple of transformation stages in order to believe in himself enough to become the hero everyone needs. The trouble with this movie isn’t that Vortigern is the character seeking out The One in order to destroy him, it’s that the group who should be looking for him don’t really appear to be making an effort to do so, finding him just as he’s about to be executed. I was a little confused about the group’s lack of proaction over the thirty or so years Arthur spent growing up. Sure, Vortigern’s Herod-lite means of finding Arthur had the full strengths and resources of a kingdom behind it, but even here I was wondering why he hadn’t looked for Arthur sooner. It’s here that the story becomes completely uninteresting. Arthur has grown up to be, to all intents and purposes a brothel keeper, and a real lad, so when he swaggers up to the head of the queue of young men waiting for their turn to pull the sword, it’s simply so he can go back to being someone who has enslaved women and profited from their abuse. I’m not trying to make a sociopolitical point here, but I’ve never found the romanticizing of prostitution as being something particularly palatable. Vortigern’s plan seems dim-witted – all one really has to do is pretend not to be able to move the sword. Unlike in previous versions of the story, the attraction to be The One was transcendence and power. Vortigern’s approach is not to offer power or riches as a lure, so nobody has any incentive to succeed. Likewise, the “born king” legend hasn’t given rise to any great groundswelling of unrest to make Vortigern fear for his monarchy, simply lots of grafitti popping up around the kingdom. It’s all very lazy, and this is how the story progresses.
After the obligatory denial/self doubt/failure scenes, Arthur finally unlocks the power of the sword, but instead of transforming himself from pimp to One True King, an d leading a great uprising against Vortigern, Arthur becomes leader of the little band of brothers who supported his father Uther. So there’s no dramatic “King of the North!” power play and pledge of allegiance, instead, Ritchie treats us with a few lame scenes of him and his merry men performing some light infractions, none of which seem to be anything more than annoying. Now, when I say “merry men” I’m not disparaging the film in childish fashion, no – I’m making the comparison between the mystical, magical epic story of Arthur Pendragon to Robin Hood. Instead of going epic and using the various elements of the King Arthur legend (of which, I have to say, I am a fan), Ritchie’s version is a lot more like Robin Hood, and Vortigern is no more threatening than the Sheriff of Nottingham.
In terms of style, a friend of mine was annoyed by the inclusion of black men in the story (Djimon Housou and Kingley Ben-Adir) – but La Morte De Arthur is not what Ritchie was making. Legend of the Sword, is mostly annoying by means of using contemporary Cockney Wankahs to tell his story. Everyone uses “mate”, and talks like they just came orf a shift dahn at the east end, know what I mean? Would you Adam and Eve it that cahnt Arfa’s just gorn and become the bleedin king of England? And so on and so forth. I’m not so much a stickler for authenticity that I require Olde English to be the language in a movie about King Arthur, but it has to sound authentic. Game of Thrones gets’ the balance right, I think – it’s not so much the language than it is about the delivery of the language, and tonally, Ritchie gets it wrong.
The most obvious thing about this movie is how wrong Ritchie is for it. There are some mostly lame attempts to introduce a Peter Jackson-esque sense of epic scale and grandeur, but Ritchie has already replaced the weight of myth with a laddish Robin Hood story, and when scenes of Elephaunt-like creatures destroying bridges occur, and a Frazetta’s Death-Dealer like character appears in various scenes, (including the climactic battle) my immediate feeling is they have come from a more deserving, better movie than this. When the movie goes back into the Ritchie’s version of the King Arfa story, it all becomes bloated with his signature techniques of speed-ramping every fight scene, and disguising exposition with his trademark “snappy” dialogue intercuts. I’m not opposed to this technique by the way – used sparingly it’s a great way to bypass unavoidable exposition, but Ritchie layers it on way too thick in this movie, and I was tired of it early on.
So yeah, it’s a failure, and not even a glorious one at that. There’s almost no decent character work in the script, and the story doesn’t take advantage of the considerable building blocks of the Arthurian legend. There are a few good scenes – a tentacled monstrosity appears in a couple of scenes, serving as Vortigern’s hellish ambassador, echoing Macbeth’s trio of witches, and the dreamlike scenes of the Frazetta-inspired character are well done, and so are both scenes where Arthur fully utilizes Excalibur, but overall the movie is tonally lightweight in terms of conflict and motivation. It was a tremendous conceit to look at Legend of the Sword as the first in a 6-movie franchise, because, like Universal’s reboot of The Mummy, getting the first one so dead wrong, even a second one looks out of the question.
© Andrew Hope, 2017