(2017—Director: Guy Ritchie)
★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) tends to emphasize style over substance in his films. This remains the case with his latest work—Warner Bros.’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Ritchie tries to combine the classical nature of Arthurian legends with his trademark montages and quick cuts. The result amounts largely to a hit-and-miss cinematic affair. It overwhelms the senses, but leaves the slightest trace of an impact in the memory.
It is the middle of the first millennium in the land of Britain, a land where people and magic-wielding mages thrive. Lusting for power, Vortigern (Jude Law) usurps the throne from his older brother King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). Vortigern then kills the king and the king’s wife by harnessing dark magic. Luckily, the king’s young son manages to drift away on a boat to another city, where prostitutes name him Arthur and raise him to manhood.
As King Vortigern allows the kingdom to fall into general poverty and crime, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows into a formidable and street-wise fighter. He finds himself forced along with other men of his age to try to pull the newly rediscovered Excalibur from the surrounding stone. Arthur (not knowing that the sword had belonged to his father) succeeds in pulling it, which arouses Vortigern’s attention. Fortunately, former allies of Arthur’s father rescue him before his uncle can execute him. Arthur must now learn how to wield his late father’s great sword and lead his new friends to defeat his wretched and power-hungry uncle and reclaim his rightful place on the throne.
As the potential first installment to Warner Bros.’ multi-part update of the Arthurian legends, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword tries too hard to impress in its two-hour runtime. The story feels no need to slow down and develop its side characters while forcing Charlie Hunnam to carry the film on his own. Hunnam may impress as a male lead (as demonstrated in The Lost City of Z, already an underrated gem of 2017), but his level of charisma still requires the supporting actors to pitch their share (which barely happens here). Hunnam’s personality and knack for dry humor does shine best when director Ritchie employs his trusty and slick montages (most of which easily make up the most entertaining segments of King Arthur). In interviews, Hunnam has expressed that playing King Arthur had been a childhood dream of his and he clearly shows his love for the material in his performance. Still, it requires needless patience to look past the wasted supporting acting talent, murky and unconvincing special effects, and altogether cool but shallow direction by Guy Ritchie to appreciate Hunnam’s dedication to the project.
It is both sad and hilarious that the King Arthur’s box office failure and likely $150 million loss for Warner Bros. has overshadowed even the film itself. Its tracking has led finance experts to scold Hollywood to create more original material with cost-effective budgets. This makes perfect sense, since nowhere during King Arthur’s runtime would I say, “Yup, that looks like $175 million well-spent to me.” What sense is there when a $250K film (Sleight) thrilled me more than a $175 million studio blockbuster franchise entry? May this film serve as a case study for producers to consider when putting together new stories with more modest budgets.
(Parents’ Note: King Arthur contains mostly sword and arrow violence with some realistic depictions of bloody wounds and progressive scratches on faces. Some brief glimpses of brothel activity occur during the montage in which Arthur grows up. There are two scenes where characters’ throats are slit, but the film cuts away to the reaction(s) of other characters before any penetration or blood are seen and in both cases, the victims are never seen clearly on camera again.)