Movie Review: King Arthur Legend of the Sword

The filmmakers sadly ignore the age-old warning not to mess with the classics

King Arthur Legend of the Sword
Directed by Guy Ritchie
With Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Jude Law, Eric Bana

Every generation takes some stories and puts a distinctive stamp on them. But there is a difference between that and simply stomping on something until it breaks. King Arthur Legend of the Sword falls into the second category. Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie has delivered an incomprehensible mess that plays out on screen like a feverish dream one has after eating sour dill pickles and a large peperoni pizza while also taking way too much cold medicine.

There are a lot of visible influences in the film — Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Bible stories, Gladiator, kung-fu films and Oliver Twist, to name but a few. … Everything except any known version of any King Arthur story.

The film jumps right into over-the-top action, with elephants the size of skyscrapers on the attack against Camelot, which looks more like a leftover set from the David Lynch's 1984 version of Dune than anything that could have been in Britain in the Dark Ages or any time before or since. The opening is actually one of the film's strongest scenes, and it is pretty much downhill from there. The battle ends with at least hints of a plot, but those promises go unfulfilled.

Exactly when this story takes place is a question that never gets answered. There are scenes with brandy, gunpowder and a telescope, all things that didn't exist in Europe before at least the 15th century. The clothes are also from no known era. Arthur (played by Charlie Hunnam) wakes up in one scene wearing what closely resembles a modern T-shirt. He and his crew dress more like the cast of Mad Max: Fury Road than historical figures. Most of the males sport hipster haircuts. They all talk in modern slang, dropping in contemporary curse words and references.

The armor in the film is inspired by a mix of bad heavy metal album covers and The Man in the Iron Mask.

The screenwriters, trying to sound like they read a book on the subject, call the city in the film “Londinium,” a name that was used during the Roman Empire. Vikings turn up, who would have been in parts of what is now Britain in the ninth century or thereabouts. Smack in the middle of the city is a large martial arts school, not unlike something that would be seen in a Jackie Chan or Jet Li costume epic. It is led by a character named King Fu George (played by Tom Wu). There is no explanation of how he got to Britain centuries before Marco Polo. But this is really the least of the film's troubles.

Arthur in the early scenes is presented as a tough street kid, like something from a Charles Dickens novel or a Depression-era urban crime film, the kind where kids sell newspapers and the street and grow up to be bootleggers.

There are rumors of a true king hiding someplace, and people who are part of some protest underground against the evil dark usurper cause trouble by painting some weird graffiti symbol. It is a bit reminiscent of the Rebel Alliance being hunted by Imperial Stormtroopers, only these guys wear black face armor instead of white, otherwise it would be too obvious.

The usurper is called Vortigern (Jude Law), a figure mentioned briefly in some accounts of the Arthur legend. He is heavily inspired by villains in The Lord of the Rings and also, obviously, Darth Vader.

All but missing from the film is Merlin, the magician who is supposed to mentor Arthur. In his place is a female mage played by French-Spanish actress Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey. Perhaps this was a way to get a major role for a female character, as otherwise women in the film are just victims of violence and/or prostitutes.

She performs magic by making her eyes turn black and staring really hard at nothing in particular while special effects start to fly.

The film tries at times to be clever and witty, while at the same time filled with action and drama — the sort of post-modern laughing at its subject while pretending it is being serious. Neither part works at all. The film pales badly in comparison to both Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is actually a more accurate version of the King Arthur legend that this mess, and serious versions like the 1967 musical Camelot or fantasy classic Excalibur. George Romero's 1981 motorcycle film Knightriders even offers more insight into Arthurian lore.

King Arthur Legend of the Sword had originally been planned for a summer 2016 release but was pushed back multiple times. This is probably a sign that the producers and studio knew they had a turkey on their hands.

Thankfully, the end credits don't try to set up a sequel.

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