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Monday, August 28, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou
Domestic Box Office: $39,175,066

And so we end the summer as it began, with the season's first high profile failure: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. At one point conceived as a means of kicking off its own "shared universe" of stories, it's instead going to go down as one of the biggest money losers of the year. Made for $175 million (and that's just the production budget; the advertising budget isn't confirmed, but I've read estimates of about $100 million), the film brought in just $39 million domestically and that figure, even when combined with the international grosses, falls far short of the amount spent to make it. This movie didn't just bomb, it failed on an absolutely epic scale, leaving a smoking crater full of burned money in its wake. Which is extremely unfortunate because, despite what you may have heard from its abysmal critical reception, it's actually kind of good. I enjoyed it a great deal (so much so that I watched it twice), which is too bad because now not only will none of the potential sequels get made, but the bad word around it probably means that it's not going to get the Best Costume Design nomination it richly deserves.

Legend of the Sword starts with the final chapter in the legend of Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), King of the Britons, who is betrayed by his power hungry brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Though Vortigern succeeds in usurping the throne, he fails to secure the two things that will allow him to maintain power indefinitely: Uther's sword, Excalibur, which becomes lodged in a stone from which it can only be removed by the true born King, and Uther's son, Arthur, who escapes in a boat and, like a reverse Moses, is taken in by the women who find him and raised as a peasant. Arthur grows up in the mean streets of Londinium, getting tougher, smarter, and becoming a leader among his cohorts. By the time he's grown, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) runs his own territory with the help of his friends Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Back Lack (Neil Maskell), building up his coffers of gold by keeping a hand in just about every illicit activity on the go. That's a lot of backstory, but director Guy Ritchie powers through it in his typical, frenetic way, managing to bring a bit of playfulness and humor to the piece in the process.

That playfulness and humor is one of Legend of the Sword's greatest strengths. Last summer I looked at the previous attempt to bring the Arthur legend to the screen, 2004's "historical" King Arthur. One of the problems with that film was that it took itself overly seriously, excising all the magic out of the story and eliminating any sense of fun or wonder from it. Legend of the Sword doesn't have that problem. Where King Arthur imagined the story as a "true" tale of a Roman solider who would inspire the legend of King Arthur and told the story in the dry way befitting a history lesson, Legend of the Sword imagines Arthur and his Knights as medieval lads, bringing a fast-talking, modern sensibility to the proceedings and leaning heavily on the magical elements that are woven so deeply into the fabric of the mythology. Though Merlin himself isn't a major character, a Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) sent by Merlin becomes a key member of Arthur's team when the time comes for him to realize his destiny, and sorcery plays a big role in the film, with Vortigern being a sorcerer himself and having spent the entirety of his reign building a tower that will increase his power, Excalibur having magic powers, the Lady of the Lake making an appearance, and various monsters popping up throughout. Although it's telling a classical tale of a hero's journey with all the dramatic ups and downs, the losses and the self-doubts, that that entails, Legend of the Sword is also a film that has a lot of fun with its subject, which in turn makes it fun to watch.

In Ritchie's quick moving hands, Legend of the Sword sees Arthur escape, grow up, get into a jam that results in him being rounded up and sent to Camelot with other men his age to be tested by the sword in the stone, be the one to pull the sword out, and end up at war with Vortigern, his gang of street toughs now grown to include the Mage, George (Tom Wu), Arthur's mentor, Rubio (Freddie Fox), Percival (Craig McGinlay), and Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), former knights of Uther. There's a lot of story packed into Legend of the Sword and Ritchie tells it in a breathless way that adds to the epic feel of the project, giving the Arthur story a sense of wonder that is absolutely crucial to its success as a film - and it is a success as an artistic endeavor even if it's not a success as a financial endeavor. This isn't to say that Legend of the Sword is flawless, of course, because that's certainly not true. The way that the film signals when a character is being assisted by magic (with glowing blue or red eyes) could stand to be a shade or two more subtle (by which I mean that the eyes are bright, bright blue or red), a lot of the action unfolds without anything added to Ritchie's usual bag of tricks (which, even though it is Ritchie's style, still feels derivative of 300), and the climax definitely has a feeling of "fuck it, it's all CGI anyway, let's not even try to make it look like anything else," which begs the question of where the bulk of that $175 million production budget went, because it's not like Hunnam can command Johnny Depp money as the star.

The unfortunate thing about Legend of the Sword is that its promotional materials highlighted its flaws more than its virtues. I'm someone who finds the Arthur legends fascinating and I think that those stories are one of the few non-superhero, non-Star Wars narratives that actually could work as a cinematic shared universe because of the sheer wealth of material available to draw on, and I still took one look at those trailers in the run-up to the release and thought, "Wow, that looks shit." Whatever Warner Bros. did end up shelling out for the film's marketing it was entirely too much because it focused on all of the wrong things. The marketing made it look dark and dreary, when it's actually got a fair bit of humor and is loads of fun to watch. It's also got a charismatic lead in Hunnam and a compelling villain in Law, giving a performance that is more nuanced than the film demands as he plays a man who has been so corrupted that he destroys everything that makes his life worthwhile in order to obtain a level of power matched only by the increasing emptiness inside of him. Flawed though it may be, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a good summer movie, even if that's the best kept secret of the summer of 2017.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: Yes!

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