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Movie Review: #KingArthur - Legend of the Sword

The bold and wild visuals of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword betray its core problem: a lack of story.

Review by Matt Cummings
Hollywood's fascination with the reboot seems to have no end. Apparently, our oldest myths are also up for theatrical reassembling, as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword arrives to an audience who probably wasn't clamoring for a retelling (the last was 2004 and it didn't do so well). The result is a highly-stylized, frenetic good time that will most likely end up in the discount bin, but not because it's bad.
The story behind Legend of the Sword is different than the traditional tale: instead of being raised by a loving family after the death of his father, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is raised in a brothel after he's sent down the river Moses-style after his father Uther (Eric Bana) is killed during a coup by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Taking on the role of Morgana, Vortigern is courting ancient and deadly magic in an effort to run his kingdom. unaware that Arthur is living in relative obscurity. But the boy's experiences are rough to say the least, and Arthur grows up angry, violent, and plagued by vivid nightmares of Uther's death. But destiny is never too far away, as the magic sword Excalibur suddenly appears buried in a stone and waiting for the right hand to remove it. Forced to take on its enormous burden and incredible power, Arthur is rescued from Vortigern's beheading ceremony by a collection of misfits including the powerful mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), Uther's former general Sir Bedevere (Djimon Hounsou), along with Arthur's thieving friends. Together, they must battle Vortigern's growing magic, while Arthur must learn to control Excalibur and accept the impossible burden of legend that is quickly growing around him.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is one of the strangest, most visually frenetic movies I've seen recently (add The Neon Demon and Swiss Army Man to that list and you get the idea). Director Guy Richie, known for introducing the "ramming" editing style to his sequences (where a figure is sped up, slowed down, then fast-motioned all in one take) produces an incredible visual experience that really can't be explained here. It's not just the "ramming" style which pops up everywhere here courtesy of Editor James Herbert, but other elements including the warp-speed narrative which squeezes what looks like entire sequences into just a few seconds (I swear there's a four-hour version of this on a hard drive somewhere) and a menagerie of fantastical beasts which include three water-bound sirens, giant boas, and elephants ripped right out of Lord of the Rings and 300. But it's that narrative squeeze which resonates the loudest, as Richie seems to desire more time to building long, slow-motion kick ass rather as a centerpiece to storytelling. That results in a spectacle as big as anything we've recently seen, but I'm not sure it qualifies Legend of the Sword as a total victory.
Richie seems determined to drag Arthur into as much mud as possible, reducing him to essentially a pimp in his youth and an angry, money-hoarding, unsympathetic man in his adulthood. He's treated much the same as James Kirk was portrayed in JJ Abrams' 2009 Star Trek, but with less character development. In fact, Legend of the Sword seems more concerned about flashy spectacle than telling a good, alternate-universe story with appealing characters that go beyond its two great leads. Hunnam, who recently turned in a stellar performance in The Lost City of Z, portrays Arthur as a more rough-and-tumble figure who initially refuses to accept Excalibur. His moments of rage - fueled by the death of his parents - feel jarringly realistic, while other moments of mirth (his 'talk' with a demanding Viking near film's beginning) are pretty great. Law chews on scenery, sporting deep angry glances that give way to a truly evil man who would kill his own family for a taste of true power. But beyond that, we're presented with a nearly unending supply of heroes, none of which seem up to the task of entertaining us beyond their physical presence. And that lack of depth begins to unhinge the story, right when things begin to get interesting.
There are serious problems with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, some of which seem inexplicable in their absence. For one, Merlin has been replaced with a female mage (an underused Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who effectively controls beasts but offers no character development beyond that; Merlin himself is reduced to one scene where his cloak obscures his face. He's an important player in the development of Arthur's morals, just as Spock is to Kirk. Imagine an Enterprise without the Vulcan, and you begin to realize the vacuum Richie creates. Surrounding him with people of color (including a random and underused Kung-Fu master) does lead to some fun moments, but it's not as effective of a character drama as it could have been. Bana must be getting tired of watching his characters die untimely deaths, as the re-imagined Uther turns out to be a pretty nice guy, which is of course completely different than the myth.
What absolutely works in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the score by Composer Daniel Pemberton, who merges Celtic, Scottish rock, and European orchestrations into yet another memorable soundtrack for 2017. It serves as the sometimes thunderous heartbeat of a film that seems to have a lot going for it, but is ultimately betrayed by its "style over substance" approach. The way Excalibur's mounting in the stone is told is quite ingenious, as is the design of the demonic villain who murders Arthur's family. And the three water-bound sirens are quite creepy as they exact a high price for Vortigen to control the demonic power. But then again, we have no idea where they came from and how their ulterior motives ultimately affect the story, much like most of the characters and situations depicted. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn't bad, but it misses unique moments to establish itself as the successor to 1981's epic Excalibur, which remains my favorite of the dramatic releases. This is more Knight's Tale than anything else.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a one of the most unique thrillrides you'll experience this year. If the idea of a rock n' roll Arthur with amazing visuals, quick cuts, and witty dialogue works for you, then purchase the best audio and 3D you can find. But if you're like me and are bound to better (and funnier) versions, the many plot holes and the lack of Merlin might weigh down your experience. And in that way, Legend of the Sword faces several huge obstacles with its target audience. It will scare off families with its Game of Thrones sensibilities, frustrate older audiences looking for a traditional story, and downright piss off cinephiles hoping for the next Oscar. Regardless of who sees (and most importantly, doesn't see) it, I fear this one will quickly fade from memory until someone picks up a Director's Cut 5 years from now and laments why they didn't see it during its theatrical release. Perhaps it's fair game for a film that I need to see again, just to pick up all the complete craziness Richie has imbued into his tale. In that way, I can absolutely count it as a success. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language and has a runtime of 126 minutes. Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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