There are cases where directors show how multifaceted they are by stepping outside their comfort zones, not only in terms of the stories they choose to tell but also in terms of how they go about telling them. Think of Wes Craven with Music of the Heart, or Jerry Zucker with Ghost, or Ridley Scott, whose Alien is no more like The Duellists than American Gangster is like A Good Year. And then there are cases where directors’ trademarks are so indelibly ingrained in their very being that, when applied to a genre they’re not known for, it results in unmitigated disaster. Robert Altman’s adaptation of Popeye immediately comes to mind, as does David Lynch’s Dune.
We can now add King Arthur: Legend of the Sword to the list. Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie, it’s an absolute mess – an unfocused, unstructured film that puts Arthurian legend in a multidirectional tug-of-war between a Tolkien-esque fantasy, a Game of Thrones-like political drama, a stunt spectacular, and the Ritchie crime comedy of your choice. With the latter, Ritchie tends to follow a formula: Multiple and convoluted storylines; a large cast of characters with very esoteric names; droll dialogue of almost poetic fluidity; fast-paced, nonlinear editing. In the case of several of his previous films – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, RocknRolla, and even the underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – this formula works well.
But it’s all wrong for King Arthur. It doesn’t have that pleasingly stylized anachronistic feel, as I’m sure was the intention. It comes off as exactly what it is: Contemporary dialogue awkwardly and inappropriately applied to a medieval period story. There are similar issues with his editing style, which not only makes portions of the film as visually hyperactive as a music video but also needlessly complicates the plot. Several scenes are structured to intercut unexplainable shots with the very exposition necessary to explain them, making them hopelessly confusing. At times, I felt like I was watching the cinematic equivalent of stream of consciousness writing.
If you’re at all familiar with my reviews, you know I’m not a stickler for literary purity or historical accuracy, so long as the end product is competent and entertaining. Because I’m well aware that many moviegoers don’t agree with this viewpoint, I’m compelled to point out that King Arthur doesn’t much concern itself with the established legend of King Arthur. The title character, played by a freakishly buff Charlie Hunnam, is reimagined as a young streetwise hoodlum unaware of his royal heritage until pulling the sword Excalibur out from the stone. He and his gang then go about plotting revenge against his uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), who, with the help of some black magic, murdered Arthur’s parents and usurped the throne.
Most of the Arthurian female characters – Guinevere, Morgan Le Fay, the Lady Igraine – are either relegated to unnecessary side characters or altogether omitted, and although the name Merlin is mentioned, he’s never once seen. For the purposes of this story, virtually all acts of magic are performed by The Mage, a young woman whose bidding is performed by animals, including a falcon and a snake, the latter eventually morphed into a gigantic monstrosity that would give ophidiophobics like myself nightmares. The Mage is played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey so robotically and with such little regard for the thickness of her French accent, it’s as if she learned her English lines phonetically and only on the days she delivered them.
Like most fantasy/action films nowadays, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has been released in 3D – which is, if I’m not mistaken, a first for Ritchie. It hasn’t, however, been released in IMAX 3D, the only 3D process that consistently works; it’s only in RealD 3D, which is to say that we’re presented with a picture that’s muddy during the bright scenes and practically invisible during the dark scenes. This coupled with specific scenes of frenetic activity result in a visual bombardment that may induce headaches. Not that you’d benefit from seeing the film in 2D. Apart from being one of Ritchie’s biggest cinematic mistakes, it’s also one of the worst films I’ve seen all year.