On royal bores, the Charlie Hunnam conundrum, and the baffling Hollywood commitment to Arthurian lore
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Warner Bros.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenplay: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Neil Maskell, Annabelle Wallis, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Bleu Landau and Eric Bana
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 6 minutes / 2.35:1
May 12, 2017
(out of four)
Alright, so this whole King Arthur: Legend of the Sword thing isn't working out. Which means there is one lesson that will be learned and one lesson only: We've gotta make another King Arthur movie. Right?
I mean, it's clear someone, somewhere, has vastly overestimated the public appetite for Arthurian legend, as though King Arthur himself has a patron saint working in the shadows of Hollywood keeping his name on the marquee. "Make sure they never forget him..." Well, too late. The new movie, which Warner Bros. was somehow, somehow, convinced was worth the $175 million price tag, was a failure practically from the moment everyone collectively yawned at the first trailer. Go back a little over a decade and there was Antoine Fuqua's $120 million King Arthur, which flopped so hard it was outgrossed by not one but two separate movies featuring both Matthew Lillard and Seth Green in prominent roles. Jump back a decade before that you and have First Knight, another middling performer whose domestic tally finished 46th for the year, just behind ... let me just check my notes here ... yes here it is, the movie version of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. I mean, as if. How times have changed.
Excalibur was a hit, I suppose, but that was 36 years ago. On Golden Pond made more money than Superman II. It was a different time then.
Even without the poor track record of this particular brand of mythology, many other things seem to have been similarly overestimated, all conspiring together to make this misguided effort happen. The movie-star bonafides of Charlie Hunnam, for instance. (Nonexistent.) Director Guy Ritchie's ability to deliver a hit movie without the benefit of a white-hot Robert Downey Jr. (Dubious.) The necessity for a movie like this to compete on the same action and special-effects scale as its blockbuster brethren. (Unlikely.) The combination of those three - that actor, this director, this budget - makes for a baffling misadventure. Ritchie's ascension to tentpole fixture has been odd and surprising in general. His inclinations have always trended toward the eccentric and the intimate - the down-and-dirty over the polished, working class over high society. That those very inclinations have followed him from his Lock, Stock days to his A-list brand names is even stranger, and creates a pronounced incongruity - big movies that seem to want to be small ones. Even his most polished studio work, 2015's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - which was nothing if not posh in its fashions and locations - felt more at ease in smaller, intimate moments than in its more elaborate setpieces. Buoyed by the crackling homoerotic playfulness of its leading men - hitting some of the same notes as the Downey/Law pairing of his Sherlock Holmes films, despite the fact that both Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer were miscast, the latter in particular - U.N.C.L.E. worked well as a mismatched buddy comedy and small-scale caper, but significantly less as a lavish action-adventure.
So it's no surprise that Legend of the Sword is at its best when Ritchie is at his most idiosyncratic, in sequences that are fast and musical and modern. The shorthand street slang that invigorates an otherwise expository scene of flashbacks and character intros. The staccato rhythms of an early montage that follows Arthur from childhood to manhood - where, as he often does, Ritchie seems to let the music govern how he puts his images together. Composer Daniel Pemberton inventively incorporates breathing and breathy whistling into his score - an effect not unlike the use of the flute in the score for Ritchie's Snatch, but with a more innately visceral feel that Ritchie matches immaculately in his editing.
But there's a conspicuousness to the way those sequences stand out - not only amidst the giant sets and explosions and fuzzy CGI, but against a story of epic scope (power and prophecy and kingdoms and fate) that seems to have very little interest in those larger ambitions. The film is much more comfortable rubbing shoulders with the criminal element - brothels and street brawlers, petty thieves and peasants - than among the royalty of Camelot. Part of this is by default, as the sitting king, Vortigern (Jude Law) - usurper of his more noble brother's (Eric Bana) throne - is the film's antagonist, and his kingdom is a dark and dreary place built by spilled familial blood. Despite the fact that we know Arthur (Hunnam) - the unknowing but rightful heir who was given his escape from Vortigern as an infant, and has been raised by prostitutes on the outskirts of the kingdom - is the man who will be king, Ritchie never makes royalty itself seem particularly appealing. Conquering the evil king and restoring order seems like an obligatory headache for Arthur - and the Resistance that recruits him - rather than the triumphant fulfillment of destiny. Not a noble burden but an irritating one. Arthur may realize the wisdom of rescuing the people from a tyrant, but all he really wants is to be left alone with his loyal friends. The film reflects that desire; it is as bored and joyless in its major plot and action sequences as is its title character.
Which brings us to Hunnam, who's tasked with enlivening that character and his reluctant journey, and who once again comes off as a boring leading man who looks every bit the part of an action-movie savior but has none of the intangible spark of a viable cinematic hero. Tom Cruise could inexplicably walk on screen in a T-shirt and jeans and he'd immediately be a more credible candidate to wield Excalibur than Hunnam's Arthur. Hell, Harrison Ford would. Like, current septuagenarian Harrison Ford. What, like if Ford came and shoved Hunnam out of the way, stared everybody down and declared, "I'm Arthur now and this is my sword and now we are going to go kill the bad king," with that exasperated look on his face, you wouldn't follow him into battle? Sure you would.
It's not a lack of charisma so much as a misapplication of what charisma Hunnam does have. With him it seems like one step forward, one step back. He was a disastrous lead in Pacific Rim, then redeemed himself with a strong supporting role in Crimson Peak. He was great as the star of James Gray's The Lost City of Z earlier this year - one of the year's best films and best lead performances so far - and now in a role like this one, he practically disappears.
The bigger disappointment - though it falls less on the actor in this case - is Law's villain, whose whole character is a thin stand-in for corruption and evil, without any real exploration of either. We know he practices dark magic and that he's gained his power through the murder of his blood relatives. We know he broods a lot. There's not much more than that. There's a particular line of dialogue in the middle of the movie - a portentous warning that he's growing more and more powerful ... followed by a cut to an image of his character conjuring a small fireball in his hand and wearing an angry expression. For 30 years he's been in power, and practicing this dark magic, and we're supposed to find that little fireball frightening? Dude can't even create a potion to cure his male-pattern baldness, and we're supposed to shit ourselves over a magic trick?
Ultimately, he intends to gain power with the completion of the giant penis Mage Tower, which will supposedly give him all the power he covets. Or something. We get periodic reminders of its significance - Vortigern will ask his subordinates, "Hey, how's the construction of my giant penis Mage Tower coming along, I'm impotent too vulnerable without it" - but it's just one confused plot point among many.
The ineffectuality of both hero and villain is especially odd, as the vitality of, and chemistry between, male characters is one of the most consistent trademarks of Ritchie's work. But perhaps that just speaks to how off his game he appears to be, even taking into account the occasional sequences in which Legend of the Sword comes to life. Ritchie's entire blockbuster era has been a spotty one - the pros matched by the cons - but this is the first one that seems like an almost complete loss. If not for the existence of Swept Away, it would be a career low point. But, much as it might behoove his artistry for him to make a film for $20 million instead of $175M, that ship has probably sailed. In any case, anyone clamoring for a great King Arthur movie will just have to be patient and wait ... oh, I'd say about 10 years, when someone inexplicably brings him back to the screen again. Maybe he'll be trying to slay Godzilla next time.