Why is it so hard for Hollywood to get the story of King Arthur right? Cinematic adaptations of Arthurian legend go all the way back to a 1904 silent film based on Wagner's 1882 opera "Parsifal," but very few of them have captured what makes the story special in the first place. Films like "Camelot" and "First Knight" languished in the doomed romance between Lancelot and Guinevere while "Excalibur" and Clive Owen's "King Arthur" focused more on the action and fantasy.
"King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" ignores the romantic angle completely and just goes for the epic action, but the film ends up just being hollow spectacle. There's still an inherent thrill in watching Arthur pull the sword from the stone, but the fatal flaw of the movie runs too deep for it to recover. The characterization of Arthur is so miscalculated that even with a better actor than Charlie Hunnam in the role, it still wouldn't have worked.
Hunnam has screen presence to burn, but his range is so limited that whenever he's asked to do anything other than glower, he seems like a lost child playing dress-up. Those limitations worked OK for "Sons of Anarchy" because he was playing someone with shallow emotional depth, but he single-handedly hurt films including "Crimson Peak" and "Pacific Rim" with his lack of nuance and technique.
This version of Arthur is a reluctant hero who isn't very likable in the first place. He's part pimp, part thief and all snark, which might work in another story, but once his heroism kicks in, it's too late to make a difference. There's a douchey, dude-bro vibe to this Arthur that makes him very hard to root for.
Director Guy Ritchie tries so hard to create memorable and original imagery, but it's in service of a story we've heard a million times and characters lacking any sort of inner life. Jude Law chews all the scenery and carries the entire film on his shoulders as the evil king Vortigern. He elevates the movie every time he's on screen, but Hunnam is such a blank slate that it's not enough to keep the film consistently entertaining.
"King Arthur" has some of the worst editing I've seen in a modern theatrical film in years. There's no rhythm to the quick cuts, which leaves the story feeling like a half-remembered tale being told by a kid with ADD, too excited to recount all the details. It's almost like Guy Ritchie forgot all the lessons he learned from making "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch." The flow of those movies worked with the quick edits and lightning fast dialogue, but Ritchie's trademark style added to "King Arthur" makes the talented filmmaker seem like a very naked emperor.
"King Arthur" is the granddaddy of all heroic journeys. It's basically the template for Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth," which in turn is the blueprint for all modern screen writers. To screw up this story is to fail at the most basic tenets of storytelling. The king is dead. Long live the king.
Legend of the Sword
Dir. Guy Ritchie
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX. Sisters Movie House. Redmond Cinema