Rating: C-, but not in the fun Fuqua-way.
Synopsis: Arthur’s journey back home to take back the throne.
Remember that time I said I was dying to see this in a second run theater for $2? IT FINALLY HAPPENED. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (or LOTS since I am lazy) is a fantasy take on how King Arthur came to take a hold of his throne in Camelot, jam-packed with CGI, Guy Ritchie trademarks, and Charlie Hunnam’s muscular back. To sum it up concisely, about ⅓ of this movie is entirely watchable and entertaining and the other ⅔ are steaming piles of falcon dung. Overall, it’s like someone inflated all the bad parts of Game of Thrones with CGI: the pacing is inconsistent, the character development and internal journeys are nonexistent, and the movie itself doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, floating somewhere between Snow White and the Huntsman and the first Pirates of the Caribbean. ‘Tis a shame- there are some really enjoyable parts.
I don’t quite know where to start with this review because the movie itself doesn’t know where to start. After studio logos, we get a brief glimpse of Camelot on fire and then the screen turns black long enough for you to question if something went wrong in the theater. A few sentences of text pop up, followed by an over-the-top “IS THIS ENOUGH CGI?” battle scene of King Uther (Eric Bana) using Ice to defeat evil sorcerer Mordred. It’s implied Mordred was in cahoots with Uther’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law) so Vortigern could take the throne and brood. Since this plan failed, Vortigern resorts to ripping apart Camelot from the inside, killing King Uther and Queen Igraine, while Kid Arthur pulls a Moses and sails down the river to Londinium in a basket. After this, THEN the opening credits start, followed by a montage of Arthur’s childhood on the streets of Londinium. Adult Arthur gets sent back to Camelot, where Vortigern is searching for Uther’s heir by sending random poor men to pull his sword from the stone. Arthur is able to pull the sword out of the stone, leading him to the actual plot. It’s like the movie version of that long ass intro in Assassin’s Creed III- WITH the forest tag.
I get it, backstory, history- it’s important to Arthur’s lineage! However, the opening scene is so long and then revisited so often throughout the movie that it was entirely unnecessary. Why even have it? Why not just start with the montage? Further, the battle itself has minimal effect on Arthur’s story, but somehow it and its history keep making its way into the movie via flashbacks instead of using the plot to grow the characters of Arthur and his Merry Men. Flashbacks aren’t bad and can be a good, creative way to move the story or characters along. However, this movie is dangerously close to becoming King Uther: Legend of the Sword. This is a movie about Arthur and we barely understand what made him the king everyone says he is. It causes the movie to lose its focus. It’s all unnecessary.
Remember that part where I said, “It’s implied Mordred and Vortigern are in cahoots”? Here are the rest of the details in that sentence that I left out. Read this. Tell me if you think this is necessary: Arthur’s ancestors made peace with the Mages. Arthur’s grandfather sent second-in-line for the throne Vortigern to the Mages as a ward and a sign of trust between Camelot and the Mages in an effort to keep the peace. Mordred wanted to rebel and looped in Vortigern. Vortigern now has powers. Mordred started the war with King Uther. King Uther killed Mordred. Vortigern killed King Uther and took the throne. Vortigern then wiped out all the other Mages so he couldn’t be challenged. Mages as a group are otherwise irrelevant. Like, really? Is this a movie about Vortigern, Uther, or King Arthur? Does Vortigern have any fun ever? All THAT to establish Vortigern as the bad guy? All THAT to establish Law has weird power over Camelot instead of Littlefinger being all, “By the way, your uncle has magic powers”?
More importantly, where is Arthur in all this? When and how does he grow into the King he needs to be? What kingly abilities does he possess already and which ones does he need? I have so many questions!
Are you still with me? Just when you think the movie has found its footing and a good pace, you get yet another flashback. And another one. And another one. I can actually feel the Mage whacking me over the head and screaming, “Do you get it? He has to accept what happened! Do you get it? There is magic! Do you get it? JUDE LAW IS THE BAD GUY. HE KILLED MUFASA.”
I suspect a lot of this is because they wanted to showcase CGI- but it’s not even good CGI! Furthermore, it does nothing for the plot. Just an example- for whatever reason, Arthur needs to take a trip to the Dark Lands in order to accept his lineage and touch his sword to a magical stone. We get a classic Ritchie montage of Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) explaining why Arthur isn’t ready for this step, and the Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisby) arguing why he has to do it, voiced over as Hunnam is getting attacked by wild mystical creatures on his journey. By the end of the montage, he hasn’t defeated anything of value or learned anything internally about himself. The character of Arthur doesn’t evolve and change in any way, shape, or form. He just says, “I guess I’m king,” and goes on his way. It’s a whole bunch of loud for loud’s sake. Its “point” could have been conveyed in a simpler, more effective manner.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Ritchie montages! Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is still one of my all time favorites and that movie is largely incomprehensible to some people. For the most part and minus the above, any scene that clearly has Ritchie’s name and style stamped all over it works in this movie. The montage where we meet Arthur and seeing him grow up is concise enough to know the kind of character he turns out to be. The other montage where Arthur and Roose Bolton are catching up is classic Ritchie and also works well, as does an Arthur/Bedivere game plan voiceover. The more serious dialogue scenes are not hard to get through. I love Berges-Frisby as the Mage in her harem pants- she and Hunnam have some pretty good scenes together. The modern rhetoric is fine. Hunnam’s British Jax Teller is fine. The Celtic rock is fine.
It’s not the merging of classical medieval fantasy with modern elements that fails- there are scenes where these elements clearly work very well together. It’s not the emphasis on action that doesn’t work- I mean, have you SEEN my other reviews? If anyone was going to champion this movie, it was me! It’s the way the action is displayed and presented- an oversaturation of the visuals and the oversight of “less is more.” For all the spectacular stunt work one could anticipate from a medieval fantasy and the roster (Hunnam, Tom Wu, Hounsou- and even Aidan Gillan knows his way around a sword or two– holy crap, he’s so young in that clip), it’s all put to the side in favor of CG-stuff. (Wu gets one kick in.) Even the hand-to-hand combat is CGI! The quality is not much better than a Quidditch scene from the first Harry Potter movie. Rather than using the CGI to complement the practical effects, LOTS depends on it and it comes off as bloated.
Ritchie’s Sherlock-style of action doesn’t work well either. While the speed/slow-motion of the action is fine and the cutting is well-timed, the close-ups jumble everything else. It worked in Sherlock because Sherlock was just body parts- we saw there the impact was coming from and where it was landing. LOTS has- you guessed it- a frickin’ sword. It has pikes. It has arrows. We don’t get to see a full weapon let alone a full swing. It’s rare to even see a full shot from the elbow to the tip of the sword. Arrows are fired from a face shot of the bowman to the target. In the final battle, several blows are landed without even seeing where the body is being hit. It’s hard to admire good stunt work and choreography when it’s not being displayed properly. Based on the practical effects and action scenes alone, this take on King Arthur makes me want to go back to my 2004 review and raise that score to a B+. I had a good time with that one despite its massive plotholes!
I didn’t hate this movie, but I am so far from liking it. I knew there was going to be bad CGI and possibly incoherent storytelling, but this movie had so much potential to be wildly entertaining for the action and adventure genre where I could possibly look over those in favor of fun. It had the chance to rework a familiar legend in a unique, modern style. Ritchie typically does a good job of making a mess and then wrapping things up so neatly with his quirky little stamp across the top. I’d definitely give a sequel a go, but I’m not going to hold my breath for five, let alone one.