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Pick it up. You know you want to.

So if we take a really loose version of the Arthurian mythology, marry it to a cockney London (er… Londinium) gangster story, sprinkle in a bunch of references, some in tribute and some mocking, to other fantasy movies… this is what we get? This is what we get. The result is ridiculous and will offend the sensibilities of just about every type of nerd out there. Your history nerds will scratch their heads about everything from wardrobe to chronology to props, your mythology and literary nerds will want to know why King Arthur is suddenly Robin Hood, and your fantasy nerds might be placated by the most awesome magic sword in the history of magic swords, but their literalist tendencies will be set alight and pissed on by this movie’s utter disregard for consistent or coherent world-building. And we already know what the movie nerds think. Spoiler: they are not happy.

For my money, King Arthur is a more enjoyable movie than either of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock films mostly because it dares to be far more bonkers and far more often at that. But it also has the same issues, including an overly dour colour scheme which mars some otherwise beautiful compositions and sequences. It also has an overly smug lead, which I’ll talk about more later. The visual issues are compounded by a really bad (in my theater anyway) use of 3D. Like, 2005 bad. This movie is so dark that many of the aesthetic details especially in CG-heavy scenes are lost. I would bet that this is not a theater issue but one with the quality of the post-processing, since many people are complaining about the uninspiring visuals of the movie. They aren’t totally correct, there’s a lot to love visually here, but the movie consistently holds itself back by being 3D for absolutely no fucking reason. When I get to see it again, it will not be in 3D and I’m hoping the visual elements register more clearly more often. On the other hand, the music in this movie is brilliant. Even the non-score anachronistic songs. Forget the term for those, but they are well-used here.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is overall a baffling movie. I don’t want to ruin anybody’s fun here, because this movie actually is plenty fun, it’s just that the whole thing doesn’t really come together the way you want it to. There are many elements that work well, especially when the movie isn’t taking itself seriously, but many more that do not. It’s a huge boys’ club, with almost no female characters and the few present get very little to do besides support the male hero or die trying, but it also wins some diversity points by not pretending the medieval world was lily white the way the racists like to. Some will accuse King Arthur, kind of wrong-headedly, of casting it like it’s taking place in Modern London rather than ~500CE Londinium. It’s a fascinating exercise, really, because here we have this remix, this mash-up, and who better to do that with Arthurian myth, especially with the music video sensibility that King Arthur displays, than Guy Ritchie? But honestly, did they ever stop to think if they should do it? No, they did not. They were planning like five of these. I doubt we’ll even get two.

MY KINGDOM FOR A SPOILER WARNING.

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Elephants in England! Why not!?

You kind of get the sense of what you’re in for in the opening minutes of the movie. All that big fantasy Lord of the Rings battle shit from the trailer? Yeah, that’s the prologue. And in this prologue, you get a big old wallop of epic fantasy right out of a Clash of Clans commercial mixed in with your first taste of what would charitably be called a punk rock inclusiveness of fantasy elements from better movies. Those elephants aren’t in this movie for any coherent reason. They are here because Ritchie or one of the screenwriters saw the Mumakil in The Return of the King and was like “fuck yes” and that’s all. But it’s not that annoying because man, the elephants are also fucking mountains (more things in this movie are actually mountains than you’d think). How do you not love insanity that delicious?

I mean the best way I can articulate this experience in analogy is to say it was like waiting outside for a taxi cab and having the yellow submarine show up floating on fucking air and full of Beatles. Like, more than four. Every time you think the movie is done doing this to (for) you, it isn’t. So if that sounds like a good time, hey step into my office because I have a product you’re gonna love.

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Wait. A ludus?

In this movie, humans and mages (a race here) live together in relative harmony until Mordred (Rob Knighton) conjures an army to attack Camelot where Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) protects England with excalibur, his baller sword. His bling blade. His… you get the idea. When this happens, Uther’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law) betrays Camelot in collusion with Mordred and kills his brother, usurps the throne, and creates a totalitarian state where mages are hunted and purged so that he can be the only one. Uther’s son Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, eventually) survives and grows up on the mean streets of Londinium in a vaguely post Roman England. There is literally a replica of the Roman Coliseum in the city… is that historical? I don’t even know!). Calling it England is the least bizarre thing happening with how this movie decides to place itself in its fantastical pseudo-history. Try not to let it bother you.

In one of Ritchie’s several Super Guy Ritchie self-referential sequences (which are honestly one of the best things about this movie), we watch in a series of rapid repetitive shots how Arthur grows up to be a hustler, a brawler, and then the don of a small Londinium mafia that seems mostly to be involved in the sex trade. Arthur grows up in a brothel, you see, plagued by nightmares about his dead mother whilst being raised by many surrogate mothers to which he feels a rather strong bond of loyalty. In Arthur’s big “save the cat” (another basic bro screenwriting trope showing up) moment, he beats up some vikings (I know, just try to forget it for now) to pay them back for beating up one of his prostitutes. He’s a good guy, you see, he just doesn’t like attention.

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Unfortunately for Arthur, HBO sent recruiters.

So because Arthur just wants to keep his head down and do his larceny in peace and quiet, of course that will not happen. He is the mythic “born king” prophesied (by who? doesn’t matter, nerds!) to return and take the throne back from Vortigern by pulling the sword out of the stone that is also his dad. Yes, yes that sentence is… accurate. I told you about all the mountains, didn’t I? Occasionally the world of King Arthur offers inexplicable but tantalizing elements that it, laudably, often doesn’t bother to explain… like why all the teleportation? But at the same time, this stuff gets inexplicable in the bad way where it just doesn’t make any fucking sense and feels random, thrown in, and sometimes incredibly out of place… like why all the teleportation? You almost have to respect how little this movie cares about any of the stuff we normally take for granted in a fantasy movie, historical fantasy or otherwise. Almost. It would totally work if it managed to commit to any of the broad ingredients that went into its peculiar stew, but instead it tries to be all the things without fully inhabiting any of them. At the same time, there are many pleasant surprises… like all the teleportation. There’s also a giant snake that is on the good guy side for a change (usually giant snakes are bad). In one of the rare moments where the movie is as funny as it thinks it is, a character remarks that they hate snakes while another says “everyone hates snakes” as she is convincing him to allow himself to be bitten by one. You know what? You kinda had to be there.

Because Vortigern is concerned by this “born king” hullabaloo, he has all the men of a certain age in the kingdom delivered to Camelot, which has become Mordor (complete with evil tower), and makes them try to pull the sword out while the slave children he’s selling to the vikings look on in… approval? These scenes, by the way, are a strong demonstration of this movie’s muddled and baffling aesthetic choices. For one thing, Camelot is instantly iconic, looming over a giant bridge like Drangleic Castle in Dark Souls 2. For another, that Hunnam is the only person in the movie always wearing resplendent white is used to good effect in a really wonderful shot of him standing alone on a ship of other anonymous English nobodies. But then the “blacklegs”, Vortigern’s stormtroopers, look pretty much like guard extras from a Once Upon a Time episode. In one of the early seasons, where all the costumes looked like they came from Value Village. You’re left wondering how these things over here look so good and obviously have a lot of thought behind them, but then these other things over there feel so goofy and out of place. You may wonder this plenty of times during King Arthur. Try not to let it bother you.

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See what I mean? Actually, in this shot they don’t look so bad. But why is David Beckham here?

So Arthur gets the sword, passes out because its power and the memories it stirs within him are just too darn much, and then gets taunted by Vortigern for the first of a handful of times they meet which play out pretty much the same. After this, it starts to get personal for Arthur and after he’s rescued by the resistance led by Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou, doing what he always does and being furniture in white people movies) and Goosefat Bill (Aiden Gillen on a brief and passionless furlough from Game of Thrones). Together, they start moving toward an inevitable showdown with Vortigern, but there are some twists and turns along the way, including a few more of those music video sequences Ritchie does so well: Arthur in the Darklands, in particular, is a standout. As is the Lady in the Lake sequence which briefly took me out of the movie with how great it was. The big Londinium foot chase heavily featured in the trailers is also great, as are the show-stopping excalibur sequences. Though mileage is gonna vary on those.

I do have to mention that all these characters, which should be colorful and memorable like in the great Guy Ritchie movies of yesteryear, fail to amount to much. I kept saying to myself “almost!” whenever a scene would try to charm us into giving a shit about any of them, but ultimately their scenes and banter all feel underwritten and anonymous, lacking the strong voice and sense of character that is necessary to make memorable characters in a largely dialogue-driven movie. If you’re hoping for Snatch level stuff, you’ll be disappointed. That said, the banter is entertaining even if it never really rises to the levels I hoped for. There are also emotional beats that work on the strength of the actors’ abundant charisma, when they’re allowed to display it. One death, in particular, is allowed to hang over the movie for a few moments before the movie does another rail and kicks into overdrive again. But it’s the unexpected surprises like that death scene that ultimately save the movie from being a complete joke or just disappointingly forgettable.

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Motherfucker hasn’t aged a day.

It’s funny about Jude Law, though, because while he’s an exception the above, he has so much more in him than what he’s allowed to do here. There’s an interesting pathos to Vortigern, he is probably the most three dimensional character in the whole movie, but it’s all too restrained. Either he needed to be more charming and Loki-ish, or he needed to be more sniveling and Joffrey-ish. As it is, he straddles this line in the writing and performance which manages to suggest both types of villain while embodying neither. He’s never quite arch, and never quite despicable. I suspect that’s by design, but it feels somewhat out of place in this movie… like he’s in a different one where we’re meant to feel a lot more sympathy for him than it’s possible to do here. The movie just doesn’t have time for that shit. Having said that, Vortigern eventually reveals (it’s showing not telling, thankfully) that he is really just a little man who wants to be a big man, and this makes him kind of sad instead of delicious or despicable as a villain. The magic he uses to kill Uther and take the throne visually reinforces this idea by having it turn him into this hulking evil Dark Lord that looks like something out of a Warhammer or Darksiders game. But inside, he’s just a petulant little brother for whom the movie provides zero motivation besides a craven lust for power, though there’s that brotherly jealousy lurking between the lines. Thor did it better. Still, the symbolism and thematic potency of the ruin created by small-minded, twisted men who want desperately to be feared is not lost on me. It’s something, and it’s more than almost every other character gets in the movie.

Arthur himself is not a character that is going to win anybody over on Charlie Hunnam. He’s good at the fast-talking scoundrel stuff, he’s very charming and good looking, but the depth of the roles I know and love him for is just not here. Arthur isn’t Jax Teller in LARP drag, I’m sad to say. And fine, he didn’t need to be, but what we get instead is almost full on Gary Stu. Arthur is always right, always a step ahead, always patronizing the other characters and is often smug and self-satisfied while he does it. His only challenge is himself, his own unmotivated, obligatory reluctance. He barrels over everything else, even mega-Vortigern who dispatched his daddy quite easily. All Arthur needs is that final burst of inspiration to almost cartoonishly shrug Vortigern off while taunting him, which he does deserve, before finishing him off. You could say Arthur’s characterization is all about his projecting a veneer of macho “no fucks given” to hide his trauma and uncertainty about his role, but it’s a razor thin read.

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Magic eyes!

In fact, there’s a lot of that going on in this movie where themes are lightly touched on but never committed to. The mages, for example, often feel like the screenwriters are reaching for something topical about immigrants or minorities, but really just using a (razor thin again) version of the “chosen people/Jewish persecution” trope to make Vortigern look extra evil. The mages, as a group or species or whatever they are, never get any real development besides what the name implies: they can do the magics. So were they saving that for a sequel? Are you as tired of that mentality as I am? Take another example, a scene where Back Lack (the actual name of Neil Maskell’s character) makes fun of another character for having an education, “this is what education gets you”, only to be undermined by the character turning out to be right and Arthur capping the moment with a smug, mocking “this is what education gets you”.  I mean, is there any compelling reason why his Londinium crew even follows him? Not that we see. So while the UK has a very troubled relationship, like many western countries do, with education… the movie winds up not on the side of its surface-level tough guy from the streets schtick, and actually valuing and championing a thing like education.

I had this feeling like there was some commentary being run here on aspects of British culture, particularly an obnoxious and boorish flavour of soccer hooligan (football firm!) masculinity, but for every bright spot challenging that shit (pro-education, sex positive!), there’s a scene like the English barons bit where they are all wearing the flamboyant costumes from the Elizabethan era and are being mocked both by the characters and the movie itself for their pretentiousness and probably for their fashion sense too. Because they look and talk gay, guys, get it? King Arthur is not about that erudite Globe Theater shit, it’s about that googling “what is Brexit?” shit. It’s embarrassed by the aesthetics of one era of British history while cobbling together a viking-punk aesthetic that is mostly make believe but probably meant to stand in as a “when men were men and men wore drab tunics”. I’m saying this is a very confused movie. Maybe it’s down to competing sensibilities in the creative team. Who knows?

More damning still than something potentially dog-whistley like this, though, is how King Arthur treats the scant women in it. No dog whistles there, just typical bullshit.

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This is the one female character and she has no name and no arc.

Called only “the mage” (Astrid Berges-Frisby), the one female character in this movie who is not beaten or killed for being associated with Arthur, gets to look ethereal and do some magics but not much else. People are gonna say she’s supposed to be mysterious that’s why she has no name, but those people are fucking kidding themselves. You get the sense that she’s supposed to be Arthur’s Yoda while Bedivere and Bill are his Obi Wan and Han Solo, but the movie is moving too relentlessly fast to ever bother to do more than imply these archetypal relationships and roles while hoping you’ll pick it up, not pay too much attention, and stick with the ride. I usually hate that tendency in tentpole movies and while it’s a significant flaw here, the pace and attention span is inextricably linked to its frequent (but not quite defining) tone and approach of irreverence. It’s like the movie is deliberately pushing aside most of the stuff we’re used to and expecting from a movie like this, and that would be admirable if only it wasn’t trying to have its cake and eat it too by refusing to be so creative and energetic with the backbone of its story and characters. It’s a Brexit movie through and through, trying to stick it to the snobs while also retaining dignity and legitimacy that it can’t seem to fully earn. It’s brazen disregard for genre and narrative propriety is exciting, like saying “fuck” in church, but ultimately shallow and misguided.

Put another, less political way, this movie is a street magician. Its good at sleight of hand, tricking you while pretending to be doing a magic trick. It offers a lot of flash, a lot of stuff you don’t expect to see, and it’s almost enough to make you forget about the osteoporosis that cripples its skeleton. The term “half-baked” exists for movies like King Arthur. These things I’m pointing out don’t make it a bad movie but I think reason demands that we understand that these things are part of why it isn’t a better one. Sexism, for example, is bad, especially if its unaddressed. Same can be said for over-reliance on cliches and tropes to do the heavy lifting so you don’t have to bother actually writing scenes where characters and audience discover things together organically. This stuff is bad for obvious reasons. It doesn’t need to completely ruin a movie, and liking a gleefully sexist movie (going with this aspect as an example again) doesn’t necessarily make you sexist or dumb, but movies that don’t perpetuate sexist cliches and/or tell their stories almost fully in the form of cliches are objectively doing something right. I think we can all agree on that much.

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So about that magic sword though.

Okay. So. Like I said before, King Arthur has a bevy of different discrete references to other fantasy shit. There’s a lot that is never explained, doesn’t seem to fit into the rest of the world-building, and if you’re charitable you can chalk this up to a rare genre movie that doesn’t feel the need to explain every little thing. Maybe they wanted to delve into things like the Darklands, the bizarre (and clearly Dark Souls inspired) ancient ruins and architecture sprinkled here and there, as well as what’s up with the mages and particular the oft-mentioned-but-never-appearing Arthurian staple, Merlin. One thing that is explained, though, is excalibur. It gets its own origin story and a somewhat unique set of properties. To this movie’s credit, it really commits to this stuff (for a change). To me, a sword enthusiast, it’s pure candy to watch a movie where they’re like “why yes, this sword can smash fucking buildings and slow down time”. For others, it’ll be just one more goofy straw in the strawpile, but also maybe the thing that breaks the camel’s back? I can see people basically rolling with this movie only to check out when the super heightened, super stylized excalibur sequences kick in. But I loved them. As forgettable as the rest of the action in the movie is (that Londinium chase scene notwithstanding), the excalibur scenes are a big payoff, particular the first time you see Arthur go hog wild in Kung Fu George’s (yes, that’s his fucking name, I don’t know how I feel about it) kung fu Roman ludus.

But there’s a catch. Of course there is. This is some Zach Snyder shit. In fact, this movie suffers a lot from the Zach Snyder disease. As much as I used to love his work, up to Man of Steel basically, youtube essayist Nerdwriter hit the nail on the head when he described Snyder as a filmmaker who specializes in discrete (also bombastic) moments that are impressive and generally work really well, but float sort of separated from the muddled or absent coherence of the rest of the movie they happen in. King Arthur often feels like a Snyder movie, honestly, and the style of the excalibur sequences looks like a straight lift from the “super fast superhero” fights in Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman (which are themselves descendants of the Burly and Super Burly Brawls from The Matrix trilogy). That might ruin the fun for you a bit, but again I’m not trying to do that. It is kinda fun, even in those Snyder movies. Faora and Wonder Woman’s bits in them were some of my favorite bits, where Snyder’s eye is unmistakable and at its best. While King Arthur might have some of the narrative and stylistic problems that tend to plague Snyder’s movies, it has way more energy, charm and humour (if not self-awareness) than any recent Snyder film. It’s miles and leagues and furlongs better than fucking Batman vs. Superman, in other words.

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A magic sword that makes your eyes glow blue and turns you into a superhuman? Didn’t I write this story when I was like 12?

King Arthur is a deeply flawed movie, but it is never boring. A lot of people will come out of it and defend it as “entertaining”. And this is true, ultimately, but beware people who insist that entertaining is good enough. When I was younger, I would have eaten this shit up and it would have been my favorite movie ever. But when I was younger, I was dumb. Kids are easily bamboozled by baubles like magic swords and giant elephants, and apparently older people with arrested development never quite shake that off. King Arthur does have that potential where the elements that really work can win you over and make you forget about all the shit that doesn’t. At the same time, some of its more egregious issues are difficult to overlook. It’s okay for a movie, especially one like this, to be a bit of a boy’s club. That might not be a popular opinion (some would say it’s never okay), but neither is the other side of it: it is not okay to treat women this way in a story, even if your story is a “men’s story”. Women should not exist, as characters, just to be fridged. It can be overlooked in King Arthur to an extent, if you’re charitable, because very little characterization is present for anyone, but men are certainly more represented even in the shallow tropey way that is present here. I mean, there’s Boys’ Clubs and then there’s He-Man Woman Haters Clubs, and maybe King Arthur isn’t quite the latter but I doubt women in the audience who are aware of representation issues are going to agree with that and they are who I listen to. So I won’t say to try to not let it bother you. It should bother you.

And no, I’m not saying you need to gloss over the issue by having a token “strong female character” thrown into the mix. You just need to let female characters actually be characters and not just fodder for the plot. Like Maggie (Annabelle Wallis), I didn’t forget about her you pedants, but the movie definitely does by kicking her out so whatever her fate is, it happens off-screen. It’s extremely lazy. You also need women to be more than sexy (even if it’s weird) motivation elixirs for the heroes. When Arthur unleashes the fury of excalibur to save the mage (again, she doesn’t even have a name), it somewhat undermines an otherwise standout scene (one of my favorites… if I forget about what motivates it) by making it all about how the male hero finds his motivation only when the female character is physically threatened. She exists to fulfill these kinds of boring, tiresome cliches. Extremely lazy again. The upside is that Berges-Frisby is pretty good at being weird, which makes her somewhat interesting to watch even when most of her moments are just fake magic words, uncomfortable looking hand gestures, and close-ups of her eyes (magic eye effects are huge in this movie).

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Sorry, Charlie. I know you were really looking forward to that parade.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about King Arthur, it turns out. It isn’t quite bonkers enough, like a Gods of Egypt, to inoculate itself from the “legitimate” criticism I try to do around here. But it isn’t bad or stupid enough, like a Conan the Barbarian (the fucking remake), either. It’s a coke dealer of a movie, talking fast and sounding good but not really able to fully hide those dilated pupils or that shaky hand.

I can’t in good conscience recommend it, especially in a year as stacked with wonderful as 2017 has been so far, but it’s got its charms if you can overlook its many flaws. I suspect it’ll go down as the Warcraft of 2017. I feel like, in many ways, this review has been reminiscent of my review for that movie, but less tinged with sadness because I honestly think Ritchie doesn’t deserve the cheerleading for this one that Duncan Jones did for Warcraft. King Arthur lacks the whole-hearted ambition (misguided though it was) of Jones’s vision of Warcraft. Ritchie can do movies like this in his sleep, and it doesn’t feel like he was really stretching his capabilities that much, or at least if he was it is undermined (that word pops up a lot in this review, eh?) by his self-referential self-indulgence. If they do get a sequel to King Arthur, I really hope they tighten the writing and give the secondary characters, especially the ladies, a lot more to do while also taking the time to give Arthur more to struggle against than just himself.

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