REVIEW: ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ is a gonzo interpretation that’s been cut to ribbons

 Charlie Hunnam stars in  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword , directed by Guy Ritchie.

Charlie Hunnam stars in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for flashy editing. I have to respect the risk taken by the filmmakers who pursue it, since it takes some stones to assemble a movie and put the construction of the thing on display. If the slicing and dicing go wrong, the whole enterprise can blow up in your face. Your film will be on a short road towards the classic “all style, no substance” label.

Guy Ritchie is no stranger to this gamble. In fact, he’s built his technique as a director around it, and more often than not, it works out for him. Ritchie’s films, including Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and even his Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey, Jr. all benefit from lively, creative editing, often used to give dialogue scenes a quirky, roguish kick. The director is also known for his use of slow-mo, something he’s more successful with than other mainstream helmers like Zack Snyder or Michael Bay.

But now comes King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the newest (but twice delayed) film from Ritchie and the first major release based on the Arthurian tales since Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 film starring Clive Owen.  True to form, Ritchie approaches the Knights of the Round Table with his signature flourishes, doubling down on the magical underpinnings of the source material. This is a movie with Mûmakil, giant snakes, and a hulking skull-headed necromancer. It’s almost a direct contradiction of Fuqua’s “What if Arthur was a real military leader?” concept, and one that feels more authentic to those familiar with names like Merlin, Mordred and Camelot.

But Legend of the Sword is also a naked attempt to re-forge King Arthur into a medieval superhero. The legendary king is given otherworldly powers not unlike those of the Flash, and thus the audience is entreated to sign up for yet another merchandisable multi-film cinematic universe - or would it be cinematic kingdom? Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if the film wasn’t also one of the most confusingly edited movies of 2017. Over and over, the movie scrambles up its scenes, leaving the distinct impression that Ritchie’s first draft wasn’t good enough for Warner Bros. (after Suicide Squad, who’s surprised?) and the editing was passed on to a committee. The Arthurian tales are flexible, but they’re no match for studio meddling.

 Jude Law as the evil sorcerer Vortigern.

Jude Law as the evil sorcerer Vortigern.

Every so often, remnants of Ritchie’s vision shine through. His acuity with crafting dialogue allows some legitimately well-timed sequences between Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) and his men, who are on the run from Vortigern (Jude Law) a power-hungry sorcerer. Arthur is no noble ruler in this origin story – he’s a scrappy opportunist who’s robbed of his birthright by Vortigern as a young child, and grows up in a London brothel. Only once Vortigern’s evil world-conquering plan – at least, I think he wants to conquer the world; the movie’s not sure – gets close to completion does the fabled sword Excalibur reveal itself to Arthur and give him the chance to take down the sorcerer once and for all.

If you squint hard enough while you watch Legend of the Sword, you can almost make out the film it could have been. Flashes of compelling scenes zap in and out, including Arthur’s trip to a Hades-like dimension or an important encounter with the Lady of the Lake. But it’s as if the movie were under some evil spell, forcing it to haphazardly jump to a different place or time, or to teleport characters to new scenes.  It leaves the persistent feeling that if you could just put this thing together more traditionally, it wouldn’t be half bad.

Bland as he may come across to some viewers, Charlie Hunnam makes for a serviceable Arthur. As two of Arthur’s key knights, Aiden Gillen and Djimon Hounsou are also decent, but the focus on the superweapon version of Excalibur doesn’t give them much of a chance to stand out. Where the script (and Ritchie’s direction) really fall down is with the two main female characters Maggie (Annabelle Wallis) and the quasi-love interest played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, sadly known only as The Mage. Maggie is developed as a crucial insider in Vortigern’s court, only to be forgotten about in the second act. Meanwhile, The Mage is reduced to an engine for the plot, always on hand to dispense some vague material about Arthur’s destiny or inspire him to unlock his power, but never allowed to reveal her own inner life.

 Astrid Bergès-Fresbey as The Mage.

Astrid Bergès-Fresbey as The Mage.

Similarly under-motivated is Jude Law, who could (and arguably should) have pushed his character to a campy extreme. Since Vortigern’s plot was likely never going to be that terrifying, Law misses an opportunity to indulge in some Eddie-Redmayne-in-Jupiter-Ascending overacting, just to leave an impression. Hell, toss in some Jesse-Eisenberg-as-Lex-Luthor twitches in there – anything to make the villain measure up to the wacked-out realm he inhabits.

Depressingly, the most engaging question that Legend of the Sword poses is whether this film will spawn the franchise that the studio is hoping for. Early box office projections aren’t looking good, and despite how utterly frustrating the movie is to watch, it’s still a shame that we can’t have a rollicking, banter-filled Arthurian series fill our movie screens every few years. There’s a reason these stories re-emerge again and again in pop culture; they contain a pure, romantic adventure that still resonates with people. All we need is to dispense with the filmmaking trend du jour and find out how much we can get from a straight-up adaptation. Now excuse me while I re-watch the last truly great Arthurian film.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword gets two stars out of four.

 
 

What did you think of the latest version of the Camelot story? Is there potential for a new series here, or will this flop prompt another reboot? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!