Second Sight: The Audacity of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Kyle Jonathan takes another look at what went wrong with Guy Ritchie's Arthur epic, but also what went so damn right.

Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a box office catastrophe. Eviscerated by critics and audiences from around the world, it fell $34 million short of its colossal $175 million budget.  Hopes of it being the first of a six film arc were drowned in a sea of negative backlash that has painted the film as one of the worst of 2017 thus far.  Regardless of financial realities, one thing is clear from the jocular first act to the video game finale: this is Ritchie's most ambitious and by far, most artistic film of his career.  Taking the basic elements of Arthurian legend and contorting them into a sword and sorcery crime epic, Ritchie's bombastic vision saturates the tired origin story with poetic imagery, outlandish plot developments, and his patented quick fire editing.  

The man who would become King Arthur is an orphan raised in a brothel, only discovering his birthright after his criminal enterprises bring misfortune.  Learning to master the power of Excalibur, Arthur embarks on a rebellion against the forces of evil that destroyed his family, learning the power of brotherhood and honor along the way.  Critics and viewers both honed in on the battling personas of the film.  On the surface it is a typical fantasy epic, filled with gaudy CGI set pieces, run of the mill good vs. evil dynamics, and appallingly pedantic dialogue.  Beneath this level of mediocrity is a big budget art house film, dominated by Ritchie's unconventional bag of tricks that almost manages to overcome its disastrous prison of intellectual compromise on panache alone.  

After an outrageous, and boringly repetitive introductory battle, the story of Arthur's childhood is relayed with a rapid fire swagger that only Ritchie could design, fusing elements of martial arts films and low level criminality to briskly step ahead of its Round Table heritage and therein lies both the film's greatest asset as well as its inescapable flaw.  The two battling themes never catch one another.  Where a marriage of contemporary story presentation could have benefited the predictable subject matter, the past and present remain curiously at odds.  The result is a mixed bag of visual greatness peppered with moments of brilliance one would expect from Ritchie's filmography.  The weakness is that these moments are too far and between to hold the viewer’s attention, but when they appear, King Arthur goes from Walmart bin throwaway to one of the most unusually exciting studio offerings of 2017.

"John Mathieson's cinematography is the film's strongest attribute."

The script's reimagining of the traditional Knights of the Round Table never gives enough time to the various cast members to make more than a passing impression.  Still, Hunnam's physicality, combined with his roguish approach to the material is fun, and in perfect alignment with Ritchie's vision.  Aiden Gillen is the standout from the supporting cast, with his Goose Fat Bill dominating every scene he is in. Jude Law is solid as the traitorous ruler, but he's never given enough room to breathe, forced into one poorly developed contrivance after another.  The real character of King Arthur is the world it recreates.  The division between humanity and "mages" is in an interesting approach that is regrettably not developed, but as usual with Ritchie's films, social taboos and prejudicial mores are present in the mind's eye.  Arthur's adolescence is explored in a brothel, with a gallery of mothers the viewer never gets to meet, yet their influence, and the influence of his upbringing ties directly into how he approaches not only his current predicament, but his ultimate destiny.  

John Mathieson's cinematography is the film's strongest attribute.  Gliding between larger than life battle scenes to looming overheads of a forgotten countryside, the magic of King Arthur's mysterious world is always present.   There is a sequence in the final act involving The Lady of the Lake that is exquisite.  Mathieson contrasts luminous pale blues against the darkness of uncertainty that captures the essence of Arthur's journey with one, angelic frame that symbolizes the heart of Ritchie's bold, but often beleaguered attempt at greatness.  A common dissent with respect to experimental art is that there are many examples of someone trying something new in a genre and failing.  The bulk of these offerings could be considered forgettable at best and utter refuse at the worst.  Much like Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman of last year, Ritchie's maligned project reimagined a fictional giant in a contemporary and often outrageous manner that lost its way underneath the auteur's command, sparking divisive reactions.     

King Arthur didn’t have legions of comic book fans to bolster its box office returns and Ritchie himself is considered something of a niche director, guaranteeing a smaller core audience.  While his emboldened approach (mostly) worked with Sherlock Holmes, Arthur’s script denies any sense of endearment with the viewer, and Hunnam is far too much of an artist to slide into caricature, thus dooming the picture to a become a blockbuster afterthought and cautionary tale of big budget artistry.  Still, it is a wonder to behold if only for the merits of its distinctive parts.  Available now for digital streaming, if you're interested in experiencing films where a director tries to break out of conventions, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword will, at the worst, entertain.  Despite a plethora of warts, there are some moments of genuine excitement that make Ritchie's regrettable foray into the epic worth viewing.

- Kyle Jonathan