Film Review: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a Stylish Mess, but Still Fun

Guy Ritchie’s Arthurian epic is distributed by Warner Bros.

*Very mild spoilers ahead, but probably not enough to deter you*

I, for one, particularly liked Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes, both the first and the second one. His sense of style is both fun and looks great, so even though I didn’t care for the announcement of his take on the legend of King Arthur, I still figured, “what’s the worst that could happen?” The reviews for the film flooded in, and at the time of writing this, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” has a RT score of 27%. That’s not a very high number, but what the hell, I just finished finals, and needed something to see around one o’clock, so I went in. And I came out pretty…neutral? Mixed? I’m not sure of what I feel exactly, but there’s both good and bad here in Ritchie’s take on the legendary King of England.

The plot, well, whatever plot there is, is based on the classic legend, where Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon is killed and his throne usurped by Vortigern, Uther’s brother, after the defeat of the sorcerer Mordred. Merlin is mentioned (but never seen, curious for a film on this subject), excalibur is important, he pulls the sword from the stone, England rises up, you get the picture. You don’t? Really? Neither did I. I’m not an expert on King Arthur, I’ve seen movies about him (like the glorious “Excalibur” from 1981), but Ritchie and his team of writers craft an AWFUL story.

Let me explain: it seems that, though the writers are having fun with the tale, and don’t get me wrong, the film can be quite fun at times, he treats us like we already know the material and that he’s making his own unique spin and revising it. Here’s the thing — not everyone knows, and I’d like a refresher to be honest, but Ritchie doesn’t give us that. Rather, the scribes cobble together context-free scenes and seem to lift the plot directly from other reluctant hero stories like “Star Wars”. The dialogue was horribly cliche, and the tale reduced to a mere shell of what the legend was. How do I know that even though I don’t remember the full tale? Because there is NO CONTEXT. Half of the major characters and names that one would remember are shoehorned in or left missing. As mentioned earlier, Merlin is merely mentioned once or twice, and his only screen appearance doesn’t let you see his face. The Knights of the Round Table? Sure, we see some of them, but many only briefly, and definitely not all twelve. Guinivere is completely different — she’s a mage in the story (oh, did I mention that you wouldn’t know that she’s Guinivere unless you read up on the film’s characters? We never actually get her name.), which is a fresh take on the character, but her lines are terrible, and she gets to have the most dutiful, un-fun part. The men get to have all the fun, while we are treated to scenes of women being abused, murdered, used as damsels in distress, or as cheap plot devices, and the only really significant female character is often the most boring. That sucks, because this Gunivere could have been AWESOME, but the material keeps her from being so. The film’s humor simply didn’t work for me, but when they take the material seriously, they do a respectable job of making the Arthur story more modern. The writing is just so, so, SO bad, even though it can be a little fun.

The acting is generally mediocre at best. Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur is reduced to spitting out cliche story lines, sarcastic and sardonic one-liners, and giving us way too much flash-forward and flash-back material (more on that later). Djimon Hounsou plays Sir Bedevere dutifully, but his always reliable nature gives the part credence. I rather liked him, even though he (like just about every character) is horrendously underdeveloped. It was nice seeing Aiden Gillen not being typecast as a slimy scoundrel, and his archery tricks were pretty cool. Jude Law fares the best of the cast, and accurately displays Vortigern’s obsession with power and his torment at the “price” he must pay for his power. Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s Guinivere/Mage has the most wooden and boring lines. It seems like she didn’t have fun with the film, even though most everyone else is, or at least trying. She deserves better than what she got. Eric Bana gets to have the obligatory Uther Pendragon cameo, and he doesn’t get to do much cool other than throw his sword up into the air and impale himself, followed by being turned to stone and sinking to the bottom of the lake. I have no idea who else was who, or what their purpose was. Suffice to say, not too memorable in the acting department.

The editing is just BAD. Not because it’s poorly paced, it pleasantly moves along quite quickly, but because it is over-edited to the point of being just ridiculous. Characters tell stories, get into situations, and have hypothetical conversations just to cut to the characters actually telling the story or being in that scenario in the past or future like time just isn’t a thing anymore. I’m sorry, I don’t need them to cut every time they want a line in the past to be spoken by that same character in the past only to cut back to the present conversation, and then repeatedly go back and forth until said conversation is over. It’s so STUPID. Sometimes lots of editing works (see “Whiplash” if you want to see a great example), but here, the film is cut in an overkill fashion. There is no real time to establish who is where, and what is going on, before Ritchie’s film moves on to the next plot point, and your head just hurts trying to figure it out. But, you just kind of go with it because it’s brisk enough, and if Guy Ritchie is having fun, you still can too.

Those costumes and production values, though, are spot-on gorgeous.

I particularly liked Guy Ritchie’s use of visual effects. Admittedly, he relies too much on them in some scenes, but they’re well done. And they’re not Zack Snyder “Batman v Superman” overkill, which is nice. We get some AWESOME action sequences, particularly a town chase after the heroes attempt to plot an assassination. Just SPOT-ON. I loved that sequence. It was enough to make up for a furiously incoherent first-act, and convinced me that I would be willing to watch the movie again just for that scene alone. His use of slow motion stylistically is effective. We get some really fun sequences because of his visual style. Seriously, the film just looks so good.

Keeping in touch with that logic, the production design is spot-on. We get a grimy, dark-ages England. The construction of the town of Londinium (modern London) and the castle is just amazing. I’d give them an Oscar nod for the pure craftsmanship put into creating those sets and designing any sets that required VFX work. And those costumes? Jude Law’s evil king armor in the scene where they present Arthur before the kingdom to be executed is Cersei-Lannister-fab in its creation. Give the costume department an Oscar nod, too. Peasants look like peasants, evil kings look like evil kings, nobles look like nobles, and the soldier’s black uniforms are splendid. I also liked Arthur’s bomber-jacket-esque costume. It was very fitting for what Guy Ritchie was going for. AH, and that cinematography by John Mathieson was gorgeous. I personally loved how the film was lit and framed, even if the quick-takes made some of the action indecipherable or too blurry at times, Mathieson’s work was overall great.

But the absolute greatest part of the movie for me was Daniel Pemberton’s epic, unique, powerful score. I can’t stop thinking about it. He must have had so much FUN while creating those beautiful sounds. He sets the mood just PERFECT with his music. I loved his “Steve Jobs” score, but this is so much BETTER. It’s the best music I’ve heard in a film this year — I’d give him an Oscar nomination, and at this point, he’d be my winner. When I think about it, if you treat this movie as just an extended music video for Pemberton’s music, then it works even better. Gosh. I’m in awe. Definitely will make my top 6 scores of the year. I want to hear more music from this man. In fact, I’m going to stop writing this review so I can listen to those beautiful, moody tunes, right now.

If you just want to have fun, seriously, watch “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”. I’d rather not stop you. If everything I say below the picture of the armor-clad Djimon Hounsou and company convinced you that you just might spend a few dollars just to take a look, then seriously. Go for it. You should. Even just to gaze in awe at the beauty of the picture and listen to the wonderful sounds and you don’t give a damn about the story. For all else, it’s not worth your time, but I suspect for most people, it will be. That being said, my grades may look a little low (or too high, for some), but who cares? If you go just to have fun, and you don’t care about the story, you’ll certainly have it. I know Guy Ritchie did, and I’ll probably see whatever he does next since he makes whatever he does look so damn good.

Grades:
Letter scale: C+
Star scale: 2.5 of 4 Stars