I have a morbid curiosity in failed blockbusters. They’re easy – very easy – to dissect, a guilty pleasure like the movies themselves. Like B-movies, with such low expectations, they’re easy to appreciate and those little things – even tiny, inconsequential things – that are memorable and endearing. (“Better than I expected” is almost my catchphrase at this point.)
Breaking them down as ‘products’ as well: who they were targeting and why they were made (in this case: ‘cause Game of Thrones and picking at the scraps of LOTR that The Hobbit trilogy somehow missed), and how they ultimately failed as commercial products.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is exactly this. Just, all of it. Everything you just read. But while thoroughly mediocre in many ways, very market-minded and shallow, it’s also exactly what I’d hoped it would be: Guy Ritchie wrote and directed a medieval-fantasy epic as a British gangster flick … somehow.
(mild spoilers but really who cares)
In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up homeless and scrappy, a beloved wiseguy who essentially runs the city’s sleazy underworld. He’s got a crew of colourful personalities, he wears that Macklemore coat, he’s cool and collected, he’s charismatic, he’s the rogue with a heart of gold. Outside the whole magical prince deal, Arthur is your typical ‘hero gangster’.
And we’re explained this through perhaps the most bizarre introductory sequence in a major motion picture I’ve seen this week. A rapid-fire montage that speeds through Arthur’s entire upbringing during the rise of the sinister new king (Jude Law), dumping a whole chunk of the archetypal Hero’s Journey down at once. A couple minutes later and we’re caught up with an early 30s (but probably actually early 20s) Arthur. Later, he pulls the sword from the stone, the king gives chase, and so on and so forth. You get it.
This intro sequence also introduces us to the film’s eclectic, impatient direction and editing, where scenes suddenly accelerate or decelerate and snapzooms just seem to happen randomly. A film that constantly shifts between montage and scene, truncating plot into straight-up summary far more often than necessary. A film whose pace ranges between rapid and slightly-less-rapid, with almost no ‘quiet’ to allow its characters and story to settle. Even the few reflective moments speed straight into the next scene without allowing any time for these moments to actually land: It’s like the film just can’t wait to move onto the next plot point, in a genre whose best-known examples are three- to four-hour director’s cuts.
I’ll admit that I have an appreciation for this sort of direction and/or editing, which really toy around with each sequence for varying effect. Sadly, most scenes in King Arthur just end up jarring and busy and undermine the whole appeal of the fantasy blockbuster. It’s an uncomfortable, unusual, almost annoying pace and presentation that doesn’t really appeal to anyone but weirdos like myself who want exactly these nonsense genre hybrids. Distinct with a (very) limited appeal: exactly what you want your blockbuster not to be (especially if it’s not very good either).
Fight scenes carry this general oddness.
Live-action fight scenes keep the main points of the action out of focus, or even out of frame entirely. Action happens without clear points to focus your eyes on. Swords clashes are inferred and punches are happening somewhere else you can’t see – but this is just nit-picking, because the real shit is in the CGI-fuelled action scenes.
The CGI sequences where Arthur ‘activates’ his sword like a power-up are just dumb. It’s the best way to describe them. I wrote in my notes: “The action sequences with the sword are just super dumb” and I stand by it. They’re incredibly videogame-like – they remind me a lot of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor actually, which probably wasn’t a total accident considering the obvious LOTR inspirations.
These scenes are smothered in CGI like vaseline, this layer of superficiality that kills the otherwise gritty and grounded atmosphere. The fantasy element is always there, and it opens with a giant set piece that’s almost the opposite of those words ‘gritty’ and ‘grounded’, but its CGI action is still such a massive juxtaposition to the rest of the film.
However, whenever King Arthur is furthest from all this high-fantasy and closer to the ground-level crime caper is the film at its best. Its Ritchie-isms – the bouncy, cheeky yarn to the local cop and the failed assassination framed as a failed heist stand out. These scenes that can be transplanted straight into a modern London caper with almost no changes: maybe not the best for a fantasy blockbuster, but they’re fun and energetic scenes nevertheless. I’d love if every second word was either profanity or vulgar, too, but I’ll take what I can get.
Otherwise, King Arthur doesn’t really impress in any other area. ‘Fine’ is succinct and accurate: art direction can be surprisingly striking at times, but still forgettable; its score is unremarkable and can be just as jarring as the editing; and performances are good enough – Jude Law enters a stronger-than-expected turn as the evil king (who probably has a name but whatevs) but the material hardly gives him – or anyone else for that matter – anything worthwhile.
At the very least, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has a real energy to it, a distinct character that you can usually rely on Ritchie’s films having. In a lot of ways, Ritchie just made another of his British gangster flicks and somehow pushed it awkwardly into the mould of a large-scale fantasy blockbuster. He probably shouldn’t have, but I’m glad he did.