Friday, May 12, 2017

Zaki's Review: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

When you think about it, Monty Python kind of ruined the King Arthur story for future generations.

That was the thought that kept running through my mind while watching Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. As Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur descend into the depths to have his fabled encounter with the famed Lady of the Lake and the legendary sword Excalibur. All I could hear in my head was Michael Palin’s politically-minded peasant Dennis exclaiming, “Strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government.”

That observation is neither here nor there, I guess, but I think it does go some ways toward explaining why in the decades since we’ve never gotten an epic, definitive telling of this most classic of fables. John Boorman’s Excalibur in 1981 probably came closest (I’ll set the 1967 musical Camelot to one side), but Hollywood’s fancy tends to lean towards deconstruction rather than devotion, which explains stuff like 1995’s First Knight and 2004’s King Arthur, both of which stripped away the fanciful underpinnings of the Camelot story in favor of “realism.”

“Realism” is what Legend of the Sword is striving for as well. It’s dirty and dingy. There’s prostitutes everywhere. Characters use the “f” word. And with its rat-a-tat-tat edits and overlapping nonlinear storytelling style, it comes off like a Medieval Times version of the director’s own Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. The problem, however, is that this "realistic" take comes off just as artificial as what it's trying to replace, and by mixing in heaping helpings of fantasy and magic, it just creates a dissonant clash of tones that never quite finds a groove.

In this telling, Hunnam’s Arthur Pendragon grew up on the mean streets after Evil Uncle Vortigern killed his father King Uther (Eric Bana) and stole his kingdom for himself. Of course, it isn’t long before a certain stone and a certain sword show up, and once Our Man Arthur manages to extract the latter from the former, Evil Uncle sets his sights on eliminating his musclebound, martial arts-trained nephew lest he attempt to take back the throne. Luckily, Arthur has his band of anachronistically diverse troublemakers (Djimon Honsou’s Sir Bedivere, Tom Wu’s “Kung Fu” George) by his side to help save the day.

One needn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur to realize early on that the script (by Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, and Joby Harold) veers pretty far from the established tentpoles of the Arthur story. No Lancelot. No Guinevere. No Merlin (except for one mention). And that, by itself, wouldn’t be a big deal, but it becomes more of a problem when what they arrive at instead is so markedly inferior. In service to this grungy, grimy, cut-cut-cut aesthetic, entire character arcs -- including, most perplexingly, the motivations of the title character and primary villain -- feel like they’ve been left in an edit bay bin.

The whole thing plays as perfunctory precisely when it should be poignant, relying on audience familiarity with the general contours of this story to paper over huge chasms in the plot. This is made doubly frustrating by the fact that the Arthur legend is so iconic and so epic -- the archetypal hero in the “Hero’s Journey” -- that every effort to update it and make it feel more “modern” just emphasizes how much they didn’t need to change, failing in precisely the way Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes reinvention (the first one, at least) didn't.

There are echoes here of Ridley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood, which took a similar approach to a similar icon, and ended up feeling similarly generic. Like that film (as is standard issue in today’s Hollywood) this Arthur is armed with its own set of outsized franchise ambitions, with anything from a trilogy to a hexalogy being mooted, but I’ll be shocked if any of those hopes end up bearing fruit. Legend of the Sword is beset by presenting a version of this familiar myth that's so far removed from its familiar trappings that its very title feels like an unwelcome crown. C-

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