Monday, May 15, 2017

'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword' review

Was anyone really asking for a new King Arthur movie? I don't think so. With the failure of Guy Ritchie's $175 million revisionist take on the popular legend, I'm glad to see that people are finally coming around to the realization that all of these movies are bad ideas. Nobody cares about these ancient characters anymore (Scott Weinberg said that we need to retire Peter Pan, Pinocchio, King Arthur, and Robin Hood and I couldn't agree more), and audience members are certainly not willing to shell out money for a trip to the theater. Warner Bros. has been at the forefront of making these things, dropping a critically panned box office bomb nearly every time without fail. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is one of those disasters that you can see from a mile away, a mega-budget movie with just about no built-in audience interest and a troubled production that sent costs to the stratosphere. To no one's surprise, it made $14.7 million this weekend, putting it on course to be one of the biggest financial catastrophes in recent memory.

In a way, King Arthur feels like the quintessential blockbuster of the modern Hollywood age. If you read Variety's breakdown of why the movie flopped, Ritchie's film went through so many of the things that we've come to associate with misshapen studio failures. It went through extensive reshoots, with some rumors swirling that they nearly re-shot the entire film. It was originally a much longer film, butchered down to nothing to appease studio chiefs. It was meant to establish a broad cinematic universe of King Arthur movies, forcing the film to tease future installments. In short, Legend of the Sword is a feature-length trailer. It has no character development, no storytelling power, no solid sense of pacing or cohesion. Instead of cutting extraneous characters and subplots, it feels like Ritchie just turned up the speed, whittling the movie down to an endless series of montages. And yet, for all of its failures, King Arthur is a surprisingly entertaining mess, working effectively as the kind of movie you'd watch on HBO in a hotel room at midnight. I know that's not the highest of praise, but for one of the biggest flops of the year, that's gotta count for something.

Set in a fantasy version of England where man and myth collide, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the origin story of everyone's favorite medieval hero. The story begins with a battle between the land of King Uther (Eric Bana) and the mages, who hope to create chaos in Camelot. Uther wins but he is quickly betrayed by Vortigern (Jude Law), his brother and the man who hopes to be king. Uther and his wife are killed, and they send their only son down the river to save him from Vortigern's wrath. The king's son finds his way to Londinium, raised in a brothel and trained in the art of combat from a very young age. As an adult, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a powerful street broker on the streets of the rough-and-tumble city, able to negotiate and work with a variety of shady characters and royal servants. Meanwhile in Camelot, the iconic sword Excalibur has re-appeared, prompting Vortigern to undergo a massive search to find the true heir to the throne.

While attempting to escape the king's soldiers after an unfortunate incident, Arthur is rounded up and sent to test his ability to pull sword from stone. And if you're familiar with the story, you know what happens next- Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone, stunning everyone from the crowd, and prompting Vortigern to throw him in jail. After the ostentatious king attempts to display his power by humiliating Arthur, the born king is rescued by a group of revolutionaries who have been waiting for the return of Uther's son. Led by Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), and the Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), these resistance fighters will show the hesitant Arthur the truth he was never told, invigorating his spirit and compelling him to lead his people. With these scrappy warriors by his side, Arthur will take on Vortigern, fighting the malevolent being for his right to the throne and re-claiming his destiny once and for all.

There's so much wrong with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword that it's hard to know exactly where to start. The story, the characters, the world-building, even some of the effects- everything feels cobbled together and scattered, the result of reshoots and contrasting visions that never meshed. Reading the background story of this film's production is practically essential to understanding why this barely even feels like a movie. While watching King Arthur, I could see the pieces in place for a true epic, a brilliant re-telling of the classic story depicted on a grand scale. But at some point, Warner Bros. and Ritchie decided that it didn't work, opting to chop down scenes and turn everything into a bunch of fast-paced nonsense. Ritchie's signature style has been successful in reinvigorating brands like Sherlock Holmes and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in the past, but in this film, his quick cuts and cockney flair suck the essence out of the story, turning the whole affair into a glorified example of style over substance.

Legend of the Sword could have been an epic tale of good vs. evil with a Shakespearean twist, but instead, it feels like the editors turned the speed up to 2.5 and just let the whole thing play out. Moments that should have a certain impact on the characters and the story are dramatically inert, delivered with an energy that is admirable but lacking in pathos or storytelling momentum. For a prime example, when Arthur is sent to some kind of dark forest to find the truth about his parentage and the murder of his father, this should be seen as a critical moment for his arc as a character and a hero. Instead, it's told entirely in a quickly edited montage where Arthur is chased by a variety of monsters and creatures before he gets a chance to put Excalibur on the altar. When the maybe one minute long scene has concluded, the Mage asks Arthur if he got all the information he needed, he nods in agreement, and that's it. Legend of the Sword ignores the most basic understanding of how stories work to the point that it's almost amazing, so inept that it's incredible to consider the caliber of the talented people involved.

For all the pitfalls that come with setting a medieval epic to lightspeed and letting it unfold, King Arthur manages to commit even more borderline unforgivable screw-ups. There isn't a single character in this film that has an arc or really any sort of definition- I would call them one-note, if there was even a note to find. Charlie Hunnam may be having a great year with James Gray's The Lost City of Z, but here he's stuck with a basic role that crosses Han Solo with a tedious hero archetype that feels completely uninspired. I can imagine Arthur's story working in a more cogent film, but it amounts to nothing but nonsense in this misfire. And yet somehow, Arthur is still the most clearly developed character in the entire thing. The Mage, Bedivere, Bill, Maggie (Annabelle Wallis in a thankless role), Rubio, even Jude Law's mustache-twirling baddie- I couldn't tell you anything about them beyond the most basic of information. And in some instances, even that might be a stretch.

And despite a $175 million budget, King Arthur still has some shoddy effects that are noticeably bad. The final battle between Arthur and Vortigern features a monster that looks like it was ripped straight out of a video game, so obviously the product of extensive CGI tinkering that just doesn't work. And to make matters worse, this is just a visually confused film that wants to be both gritty and fantastical at the same time. This is a movie where Arthur is a scrappy street hustler raised in a brothel, but in this exact same movie, there are giant snakes that murder people and giant elephants that wreck castles. Do these contrasting approaches even come close to working beyond giving the whole thing a general tone of weirdness? Absolutely not. This whole thing feels like the product of an over-abundance of ideas, and I don't know why some of it wasn't left on the editing floor.

But I was entertained. I know that that's a strange claim to make after absolutely panning a film for nearly four paragraphs, but it's the truth. King Arthur is a thoroughly watchable movie, even if my brain was consistently telling me "Wow, this is really terrible." I don't know if Ritchie's film quite fits into so-bad-it's-good territory, but it sure does come close.

In short, everything about Legend of the Sword is awful. Bad writing, poor character development, horrid storytelling- a total botch job in the editing room. I can't recommend that anyone go to the theater to see it, but if you catch it on HBO in eight months, you'll probably be pretty damn entertained. It's hopelessly stupid and insane, which makes it the perfect cable movie. Just don't expect anything cohesive or really anything that resembles an actual motion picture.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.9/10)

Images: IMDB/WB

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