So before we get into the quality of this film let’s deal with my thinking before going in. First let’s be honest there has never been a good King Arthur film—from the cocaine fueled insanity that was Excalibur to the bizarre attempt at being historically accurate of the Clive Owen King Arthur (and even the Disney film avoided all of the actual King Arthur details). Hollywood just doesn’t have a great reputation with this story. It’s kind of understandable, most of the books (with the exception of Mists of Avalon which is too cerebral to be effectively put on screen, not that they didn’t try and miserably fail) to work with are terrible. It’s something to say about the enduring nature of this tale that it continues even if can’t actually be told well. Then of course there is the Guy Ritchie issue. When making fast paced comedies of very witty repartee in the slum of England like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch or incredibly thoughtful works like Revolver he’s great…when making more modern period pieces like Holmes and U.N.C.L.E. well he’s 2 out of 3 (1.6 out of 3 really, the third act of Man from U.N.C.L.E. was lacking in strong direction). So. with that all said, a subject matter that never gets done well, and a director who hasn’t exactly been batting 1,.00 lately). So I went into the movie with all of these reservations.
Surprisingly the movie was actually quite good. Ritchie’s fast paced dialogue while not what you would usually associate with a magical sword and sorcery tale works well, especially because Arthur is the one with the quickest wit of the lot and it makes him the most likable character in the film. And while there is certainly a heavy dose of anachronisms in the story, it’s a Hollywood movie about a mythical king using a magical sword, I wasn’t expecting a perfect history lesson. The film was actually very enjoyable. Since it came out I’ve read a number of reviews of the film and am just struck by the strangeness of the typical line of critique, all seeming to complain that it wasn’t serious or historically accurate enough. I really have to wonder what most critics go to movies looking for. I certainly complain a lot that some movies that are just brain-candy get called great when they’re merely just enjoyable, and I will always complain when people complain that movies that are meant to be great are judged by the standards of brain-candy, but it seems that critics only go looking for pretentious crap and that really leaves me pondering why they ever got into this field in the first place. This movie is brain-candy and only brain-candy, and I will judge it only as such.
The film departing a great deal from the traditional tale starts off with King Uther of Camelot fending off the attacks from the evil mage Mordred (so thankfully if this movie ever gets a sequel—unlikely given its terrible box office numbers but I can dream—we won’t have those awkward incest plot lines). Uther defeats Mordred only to be betrayed by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law in the first performance I have actually enjoyed from Jude Law since the first Sherlock movie). Uther manages to save his son, Arthur, from Vortigern, and Arthur is sent down river only to be found by a the workers of a London brothel and raised within its questionable walls. A quick roll credits montage shows that Arthur grows into a man who can plan, fight, lead and protect those he cares about. Unfortunately for Arthur his uncle has been taking in every man of Arthur’s age to come and try to take Excalibur from the stone Uther put it in to try and prevent his nephew from coming and taking his throne (why do villains always have to plant the seeds of their own destruction?). Quickly teaming up with the rebels who were loyal to his father and a female mage sent from Merlin (Guinevere? Morgana? we never find out what her name is…oh for a sequel), Arthur escapes his uncle’s grasp, Excalibur in hand and works to topple Vortigern and free the land that is rightfully his.
Something that seems to be bothering a lot of critics but I found refreshing was the use of several montages in the film. These covered Arthur growing up, Arthur making a journey through the fairy-world for knowledge, and of course a few battle preparation scenes. One could argue these are important scenes, but I think Ritchie realized these are parts of the story everyone has been subjected to ever since stories were first invented. They were parts we all knew what they were for, were all familiar with the images, and knew the ending even before that part of the story began. And given that they were parts that could easily make the movie get very draggy he decided the better call was just to montage them and move the film to the parts that don’t follow a strict formula. For me the most unforgivable part was that this film was still using shaky-cam action sequences. In a post-John Wick world this is simply not acceptable. And this is a real problem for Ritchie. It’s what made the last third of Man from U.N.C.L.E. the weakest part of the film, it’s what makes the majority of the second Sherlock movie unbearable, and it really has become the bane of too many movies. When no one was willing to do more than shaky cam for action scenes it’s forgivable, but we’re past that now. Every director needs to learn how to direct a real action sequence.I think Hollywood also just needs to realize that while Guy Ritchie is a great director, he’s more suited for smaller crime-dramas where the quick wit and deep thought matter, than these huge block-busters. For whatever reason there is Ritchie, even when he makes a great movie, doesn’t seem to get that magic formula that translates to huge box office numbers. M. Night Shyamalan has the same problem. Stick with the smaller pieces and you’ll do much better. Overall I would say you should go see this, but if witty repartee isn’t your thing you’re not going to enjoy this.