OnScreen Review: 'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

“Life is too short to watch bad movies.”  This was a quote I stumbled across somewhere on the internet.  I’d like to assume it could be attributable to Confucius, but that is probably aiming too high.  Regardless, that is my mantra most of the time when it comes to selecting movies to watch.  There are a lot of great films out there to be seen, and I don’t want to waste my time on the bad ones when there are so many good ones I still need to get to.  This is probably the case 99 times out of 100 for me.  Every once in a while, though, I feel compelled to waste my time on a project that feels like it could be a colossal failure, though not always (I had zero interest in seeing World of Warcraft last summer, as did most people).  For whatever reason, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was an itch I felt like I needed to scratch, and so I headed to the theater on a cool Monday afternoon to see if Guy Ritchie’s latest was as bad as advertised.  In the words of Han Solo in The Force Awakens, it’s true, all of it.

Ritchie reimagines the swords and sorcery legend in this would-be epic about the legendary would-be king, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam).  As a young boy, Arthur’s father, Uther (Eric Bana) is betrayed by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) after defeating the mage Mordred.  Arthur is sent downriver in a vessel, only to be found and taken in by a group of women in a brothel who raise him as their own in Londinium.  He has a hardscrabble education on the streets and alleys of Londinium, eventually running protection for the brothel as well as side hustles in the streets with his friends.  Meanwhile, Vortigern is looking for his nephew by bringing men of a certain age from all around to attempt to lift the sword Excalibur from the stone and to kill him.  While attempting to escape Londinium because of heat from the local authorities, Arthur is caught up and taken to the castle where he discovers his lineage when he pulls Excalibur from the stone.  He is rescued from public execution by people formerly loyal to his father who are a resistance force against Vortigern, aided by a mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) sent from Merlin himself to aid in the fight to reclaim the kingdom and restore the rightful king.

Sad to say, there are very few bright spots in this drab, bland two hour fiasco.  One of those is Astrid Berges-Frisbey as The Mage.  She is one of those models-turned-actresses who have an almost other-worldly look which aids her character as the mages are apparently in hiding and exist in different dimensions.  Hunnam occasionally shows flashes of charisma as Arthur, though most of the time he resists his birthright and is reluctant to pick up the mantle of king.  Jude Law, as the villain, gets to chew some scenery and be menacing from time to time.  It’s not an over the top performance, though. 

Mostly though, this film just plain misses the mark.  The legends of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have existed for centuries.  They have endured for a reason; they are compelling stories.  Ritchie, somehow, has found a way to suck much of the enjoyment out of the story.  So much of the film is dour and has a muted color palette.  When there are moments of humor mixed in, it is oddly out of place or just not that humorous.  The special effects are very clearly special effects.  A few action sequences reminded me of Blade 2, which had fights that were very clearly between two CGI characters and no real actors on screen.  The same happens here in a few places, and while Blade 2 can be forgiven because it was made in 2002, there is no excuse for it in 2017, and especially when the film’s budget is $175 million. 

So much of that $175 million budget is wasted on CGI too.  It is a waste not because it all looks bad, but because so much of it is murky and in shadow and difficult to see.  Also, Camelot is utterly morbid, like something straight out of Mordor.  Why would Arthur want to live there?  Things don’t need to be shiny and glossy as 1981’s Excalibur, but Camelot should look appealing on some level, I would assume. 

On top of this, some of the action and a few moments actually made me snicker in the theater.  When Arthur finally unleashes the power of the sword during a stand where he and his men are trapped by Vortigern’s men, it is like he unleashes turbo mode in a video game and becomes The Flash, moving in a blur and taking out all of their opponents in the blink of an eye and a cloud of dust.  At one point the film reveals how Excalibur ends up in the stone and it is just one of the dumbest things I have seen in a movie in a long time.  And the climactic battle takes place in a CGI-laden stone platform surrounded by sea and Arthur’s opponent is a giant hulking warrior, but so much of their fighting is shrouded in darkness and rain.  It’s was like Guy Ritchie saw Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice last year and was actually inspired by the climactic fight.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the film is how egregiously out of place the tone of the movie is with the subject and setting.  Sometimes you see a movie and it is the perfect combination of material and director, like that director was born to make that film and everything just clicks and the way that director tells a story is exactly right for that story.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the exact opposite of that.  Ritchie has a certain aesthetic to most of his films and usually it works.  Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels spawned a generation of imitators.  Quick edits, jumpy storytelling, and quick dialogue are a feature of practically any Guy Ritchie film.  He loves to have a character explain how something happened after the fact through flashback and a fast-talking voiceover.  It works in crime thriller like Lock, Stock.  It even works in the Sherlock Holmes movies.  With King Arthur it is a huge distraction and eventually an annoyance.  His storytelling completely mismatches the story.

Ritchie tries to make a King Arthur for a 21st century audience, attempting, almost stubbornly, to tell this classic story in his distinct voice.  It’s an ambitious, expensive, bold film that falls incredibly short of the mark.  It’s not even the kind of film that can be admired for its ambition (like Interstellar).  Nearly all of its ambition is misplaced and so many aspects of the film are misguided.  It’s not the worst acting likely to be seen in a movie in 2017.  It’s not even the worst movie likely to be seen in 2017.  But it is easily the biggest misfire of 2017 from what it was envisioned as (the first of six planned titles) and the end result.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars