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KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is Artsier and Stranger Than You’re Expecting (Review)

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is Artsier and Stranger Than You’re Expecting (Review)

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not a faithful retelling of the original legend. It is also not a typical Guy Ritchie movie. In fact, it’s fair to say that whatever you are expecting it to be… it isn’t.

For the first time in his career, Ritchie really feels like a director trying to push himself beyond his comfort zone. From the opening’s silent slow camera push-in on a burning tower in the distance, followed by a cut to black that lasts just long enough to make an audience uncomfortable with it, to Terence Malick-style shots of nature vistas beneath would-be poetic voiceover, this is a film trying for a decidedly artful approach… albeit in a world of Godzilla-sized (and -sounding) elephants, giant snakes, and a muscular demon figure who resembles a hybrid of Skeletor and Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer. Yes, late in the film, we do get some more traditionally Ritchie-esque sequences of quick-cut chases and fights, but only after he’s established a thoroughly different style.

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It’s going to be divisive. Like The Lone Ranger and John Carter, King Arthur has the feeling of a summer movie with great ambition, but which will simply be dismissed as “a mess.” And because Ritchie plays around with so many new tools and storytelling techniques, he does sometimes forget that the visuals should be serving the plot, as the all-over-the-place narrative makes the movie feel three hours long when it’s closer to two. So yes, it could be better. But its good bits are really, really good.

In the oddest departure from the traditional narrative, Ritchie effectively sabotages at least one potential sequel by having Mordred, traditionally depicted as the bastard son of Arthur out for revenge, appear during the reign of Arthur’s dad Uther (Eric Bana), only to get rather swiftly dispatched by the power of the sword Excalibur during the opening battle.

This glimpse of Mordred, part of the magical race of mages to which Merlin (who gets only one scene in the film) also belongs, is a red herring–it’s not spoiling for anyone who’s seen a trailer or even a poster to reveal that the true villain is Uther’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who has made a deal with a giant aquatic tentacle monster attached to three female torsos (I’m soooo not even kidding) in order to gain ultimate power. Young Arthur, Moses-style, gets put in a basket and floats down the river into a montage of several different actors teaching him to be a savvy street urchin. The end result of this is his transformation into Charlie Hunnam, who likes to silently scream while shadowboxing.

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Eventually, Excalibur reappears in an underwater stone that is revealed by a drought. Realizing that only the true heir can pull it out, Vortigern seeks out every young man who’d be the right age in order to test them. Ultimately, it’s Arthur’s turn… but Arthur doesn’t want it. Obviously, we know he will eventually, but this is one hero who rejects the call to action not just once, but many times. It takes a female Merlin type (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, whose character never gets a name), a giant eagle, Djimon Hounsou’s Sir Bedivere, and a slippery rebel named Goosefat Bill (Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger, Aidan Gillen), to ultimately persuade him otherwise.

Well, that, and a sword that has the power to suddenly turn reality into a parallel Zack Snyder-ish dimension. But only if Arthur can allow his own repressed childhood memories to return. Ritchie’s disjointed editing in the intro slowly starts to make more sense as you realize it’s from young Arthur’s point of view, and that it’s leaving out everything he has mentally blocked.

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There’s a lot to get through, story-wise. First, Arthur has to be found, then he has to actually want to become the hero, prove himself the hero, and accomplish enough to be a credible threat to Vortigern by the end. It’s easier to break down the plot as if it were multiple levels of a video game than the traditional three acts of drama. At the same time, because each mission tries something different visually, and frequently cross-cuts between the explanation of what needs to be done and what actually gets done, you can’t really call it video-game storytelling. The language of cinema is in effect even the typical structure of same is not.

Charlie Hunnam, formerly known as my least favorite A-list actor ever, actually isn’t bad. His haircut, yes. His acting, nahh. Hunnam’s a stiff when he gets cast as a generic good guy, but his Arthur is a smart-mouthed ass, which is as Ritchie-esque a touch as one can expect (Hunnam has said he based the performance on the director himself).

And this isn’t Alien: Covenant, which took almost an hour to show any aliens; action fans should be satisfied that man against monster happens right upfront, and the climactic battle suggests that Ritchie was a Masters of the Universe fan as a kid.

Like Gore Verbinski in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 or The Lone Ranger, Guy Ritchie is a director saying to himself, and us, that he’s earned enough goodwill to make things really weird for an IP nobody expected much with in the first place–just wait ’til you find out his all-new origin for the sword in the stone! May he only get stranger.

Rating: 3.5 majestic burritos out of 5. (Although Round Table pizzas might be more appropriate for this one!)

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Images: Warner Bros.

Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association, and he adores the original Excalibur. Find him on Twitter @LYTrules.

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