Before seeing “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” I had decided to brush up on both the legend and medieval English history after the movie so I could write an informed review. Upon seeing the film, I decided not to bother. It seemed as though the filmmakers hadn’t, so why should I?
That’s not to say one shouldn’t tinker with fact or fiction when basing a work on a legend or historical figure. Movies that depict actual events do it all the time, so why should one complain when a film fashions its own version of a world filled with magicians and giant snakes?
No, the problems with “King Arthur” have nothing to do with the artistic liberties taken by director Guy Ritchie and the litany of writers who had a hand in the script. Rather, the movie suffers from the misguided efforts of a talented filmmaker who was mismatched with the material and a studio more concerned with building a cinematic universe than making one good movie.
“King Arthur” introduces its titular character as a child. In the opening scenes, his father, king of the Britons, staves off an attack by a power-hungry sorcerer but is then murdered by his brother, Vortigen, during a coup. Arthur’s mother is killed, too, leaving the boy adrift on a river that takes him to Londinium, where prostitutes find and raise him.
In a head-spinning montage, Arthur grows from boy to man, gaining considerable muscle mass and learning to fight. When the movie slows, Arthur has become the proprietor of the brothel in which he grew up. It’s a temporary post, though, as the tide of fate soon sweeps him up in a quest to avenge the death of his parents and remove Vortigen from the throne.
If you have seen either of the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr., then you’re familiar with Ritchie’s aesthetics as a filmmaker. He applies those here, to the detriment of the movie. There are lots of explosions, fight scenes are light on choreography and heavy on fast cuts and there are a few of Ritchie’s trademark monologue montages.
The latter feel out of place and all but killed my interest in the film’s story. Ritchie uses one such sequence to build the legend that surrounds Arthur among the people, but the dialog and cuts come at such a rapid-fire pace that I had trouble keeping up. Before the scene was over, I realized I was also having trouble caring.
“King Arthur” is a blight on the eye as well. The film is aggressively grey and brown, to the point of looking nearly colorless, and the film’s most arresting images seems to have been lifted out of other fantasy films. The giant elephants and thousands of digital extras that pack the screen in the “Lord of the Rings” style battle that opens “King Arthur” might look impressive, but most viewers have been there, done that many times.
All of that said, the biggest visual problem with “King Arthur” is it’s hard to see what’s going on. This is especially true during a climactic battle that fills the screen with smoke and fire and little else.
The movie’s greatest weakness, however, was intended to be its biggest strength. Thanks to Marvel and its cadre of superheroes, every studio is eager to fashion a cinematic universe that can support sequels and spinoffs. The absence of several iconic characters from Arthurian legend, including Guinevere and Lancelot, suggest Warner Bros. Pictures (which must desperately miss Harry Potter) was holding some of its cards close to its chest for future installments.
How much more compelling would “King Arthur” have been with the inclusion of these individuals? We’ll never know. Instead, we get hints throughout the film or a larger story taking shape without being asked to care about the tale at hand.
Chris Hartwell of The Hollywood Reporter hit the nail on the head in his article, “How King Arthur was killed by a would-be franchise,” when he wrote that Warner Bros. put the “proverbial franchise cart before the solo film horse.”
There are flashes in “King Arthur” of what could have been. Charlie Hunnam, whom we last saw exploring the Amazon in “The Lost City of Z,” makes a terrific looking Arthur, and he has the kind of charisma that could have pulled off a great script.
What’s more, Jude Law was well cast as Vortigen. Law must have relished the opportunity to become a villain in a Ritchie film after playing the straight man to Downey, Jr. for two movies. In a pair of scenes in which Vortigen makes the sacrifices needed to secure the services of a sea witch, he very effectively shows how consumed by greed and ambition his character has become and the pain this inflicts.
There are snippets of dialog here and there that hint at a better movie, too. I especially liked a scene in which Arthur is told the people are rising and fighting in his name, and he replies, “I don’t want to wear that.”
But oh well. It might have taken Warner Bros. several years and $175 million to bring “King Arthur” to the screen, but it was only two hours out of my day and a few dollars out of my wallet. I hope I have spared you the same.
Two stars out of four