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Review: KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword dwindles as Guy Ritchie improperly mixes his style into fantasy tropes and sidesteps fundamental ingredients.

In a time when medieval fantasy is prevalent on TV (Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Outlander, to name a select few), Warner Bros. thought a revival of Arthurian legend as a six-movie saga would be the trendy and profitable counterpart to attract theatergoers. They must’ve forgotten about several adaptations over the last 50 years. Or were they too convinced of Guy Ritchie dishing out groundbreaking ideas for the age-old source material? Though Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century “Le Morte d’Arthur” is widely deemed as the authoritative version, remodellings are always open to revisionist freedom as the legend is more fictional than historical. It’s always about sword and magic, choice and destiny, chivalry and evil plot.

That being said, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an anachronistic and boastful retelling, applying a 6th-century legend to a medieval cultural and political setting (knights in shining armor and occasionally, fashionable leather jackets) and modern etiquettes. Made solely for entertainment purpose, the movie relies too much on grungy visual effects. The prologue, pulled straight out of The Lord of the Rings and adorned with Zack Snyder’s aesthetics, swanks its ostentation with towering elephants and destructive fireballs. Other than displaying the chaotic extravaganze of valor and wizardry, this scene provides the backstory about King Uther Pendragon of Britons (Eric Bana) and his brother Vortigen (Jude Law)—you know, the usual drama expected from medieval royal families. It also establishes relations between institutional powers: humans and mages, their armistice, and individual evil schemes to sabotage peace. After defeating the rogue warlock Modred, who shouldn’t have appeared this early (an example of creative freedom running amok), Uther is betrayed by Vortigen. Fortunately, the king sends his son away before being overpowered by a demon.

The opening battle that reminds us of The Lord of the Ring

The boy arrives at Londonium and grows up to be a young outlaw on the street, played by Charlie Hunnam, echoing boldness and suavity from Hunnam’s character Jax in Sons of Anarchy. The street-smart, often shirtless lad minds his own hoodlum business and stays loyal to people he holds near and dear—his buddies Tristan (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Backlack (Neil Maskell), and several prostitutes who raised him. After his protectiveness proves to be an overkill, he’s taken together with many young men to where the old Excalibur is stuck in a boulder. Vortigen wants to find his nephew and prove Arthur is not worthy of both the sword and the throne.

Thematically, the portrayal of Uther’s courage and swordsmanship feel like an overstock because there’s little linkage of affection and knighthood between Uther and Arthur. Amidst all notions of royalty and betrayal, the story wants to center on the importance of bloodline and legacy. Viewers, however, won’t find much fervor in this father-son relationship, which is supposed to flesh out the duty and urgency. Sequentially, the quest to be worthy of Excalibur tries to be more interesting with Arthur’s emotional baggage—a tragic childhood clouded by trauma—but the movie already builds itself on a shoddy ground. It leads to the fruitless sword-pulling scene, which Ritchie undermined as the plot squeezes in disturbing visions of the demon and Uther’s death (and also David Beckham). Excalibur needs its wielder to be worthy; otherwise, no one can seize its potential. Everything comes to a halt.

Charlie Hunnam as the rugged Arthur

Ritchie clearly didn’t moderate his visual style, even though Arthur’s upbringing can benefit from conventional masculinity, sarcastic jokes, street-level gangsters, and intense close-quarter combat. There are footraces and brawls for Ritchie to fool around, but these parts are fleeting, brusque, and insignificant to remind us of his appeal in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch. Frantic cross-cuts rip the conversations apart, and crazy camerawork worsens the experience. Ritchie’s best action sequences always included a few key people in solo fights, and set pieces are less important in such routines, but now skirmishes and battles ensue. Apparently, crowded spectacles don’t go well with quick cuts. When characters aren’t effectively integrated into the setting, action scenes—no matter how well-choreographed—become detached, boring scrambles. With desaturated colorization and a soundtrack heavy on throbbing warfare drum, most of the ultra-violence looks far-fetched like tacky cutscenes from video games.

Freddie Fox, Craig McGinlay, Charlie Hunnam, Aidan Gillen, and Djimon Hounsou

For sure, fans of the English director remember Snatch’s “I’m coming to London!” scene as one of the best cases in elliptical editing. This technique might be a sumptuous feast for the eye, but applying them to three important sequences exemplifies and amplifies Legend of the Sword’s irritating direction. They could’ve been the opportunities to dive deep into the hero’s quest—how Arthur’s dexterity matures—yet Ritchie traded them for the fan-service (i.e. slo-mo and speed ramp). Though the movie optimizes the stimulating visual storytelling, high-speed spontaneity undersells Arthur’s character and takes emotional intensity out of the moment.  But hey, at least Ritchie didn’t use title cards.

Besides, Ritchie and the writers didn’t bother to construct compelling personalities to spice up the fights. Arthur’s quest should scale through comradeship and affection, whereas the men’s interactions are uninspiring and Arthur’s attraction to the Mage (Àstris Bèrges-Frisbey) seems more like Tinder courtship. Before reaching the climax, the script added a sapping surplus of details: Backlack and his son, Arthur and Uther, and most vexingly, the demon’s identity, which everyone knows the instant he appears. The revelation plays on a brilliant but trivial tweak. It’s all about his father, who is, again, insubstantial to him.

Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as The Mage

Arthur’s allies are a posse of risky, belligerent individuals, made up of Uther’s confidants and Arthur’s fellow scofflaws. Due to thin writing, Djimon Hounsou and Aiden Gillen only grounded Sir Bedivere and Sir William to typical mentors who can’t control Arthur’s impulse. In contrast to adrenaline-rushing exploits, the hohum pep talks and strategic discussions meander in low spirit. The resistance army also gets help from the Mage, a female… mage sent by Merlin to help the guys escape mortal threats so smoothly. Like a deus ex machina, her presence lowers the stake because there’s always a person with sorcery tricks under her cowl. She should be a balance to the guy’s scrappy bravado but instead joins a long line of female side characters. Most of them are aqua-monsters, prostitutes, or negligible family members. On the villain side, Law made for a convincing and wily overlord, and with a riff of Hamlet’s drama, Vortigen is easily the best acted and written character in this movie. Law conveyed the needed credibility into Vortigen’s sinister thirst for dominance and heartbreaking penance after his sacrifice for mystical powers.

Jude Law as Vortigen

Legend of the Sword spins out the thinnest yarn of Arthurian legend—without Merlin and before Arthur is made king—about how the slick-haired, macho wayward son of Uther must reclaim his birthright. Sometimes heroic and poetic enough, the movie dwindles halfway down the line, struggling to keep the spotlight on one character. Within the overarching themes, the movie is weakest at the directorial style. Ritchie was in over his day-dreaming head by incorporating personal patterns into fantasy tropes and sidestepping the fundamental ingredients. That’s what people with a low expectation for this summer blockbuster or little knowledge of Arthurian legend can tolerate.