Who ordered the gangster King Arthur who knows Kung Fu? Well that's what Guy Ritchie's delivered with 2017's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, featuring the fresh faced Charlie Hunnam as the famous rough and tumble brothel raised cockney of yore. I must admit, this ridiculous, perplexing creation is a lot of fun. At any rate, it's better than First Knight.
I could see Guy Ritchie directing a decent version of Oliver Twist one day. He certainly seems like he'd be more comfortable with the Artful Dodger and Bill Sikes than he is with Percival or Bedivere. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, first of a planned six part film series unlikely to happen now considering this one's disastrous box office, feels for all the world like Ritchie's protest against the world that would force him to make a big budget sword and sorcery film.
It was like Ritchie burst into the Warner Brothers' office and said, "I got this great idea for a film about this hood named Artie and his pals Backlack and George--"
"You're doing a King Arthur film, Guy."
"As I was saying, this idea I have's about a king named Arthur and his pals Backlack and George . . ."
When the film is focusing on that crew, roaming about a preposterously Victorian Londinium, it's a lot of fun, deploying the layering of narratives of guys who take the piss telling stories that are cinematically illustrated. And why not? If the movie can have twenty storey war elephants, why not gangsters, too?
And it does have twenty storey war elephants. The first fifteen minutes of the film might well convince you there's nothing of value here because it's a muddled retread of the usual Lord of the Rings battle sequences with some 300 fast/slo-mo featuring the long lost Eric Bana as Uther Pendragon. What has Eric Bana been up to? He was so great in Hulk and Munich. Anyway, for all the poetry in Ritchie's editing of street guys telling stories, he does not have the chops to thread together a massive fantasy battle. Uther manages to get on top of an elephant alone to kill its master and then somehow gets out unscathed while everyone else dies--no idea how, the film just cuts to him standing on a battlement looking grim.
Ritchie draws on video games a lot, like Zack Snyder before him, and one can detect traces of Skyrim and God of War and the finale is right out of Soul Calibur. But the feeling that the rules are totally arbitrary isn't helped by the confusion created with the editing. When Ritchie is dealing with guys on the street, he seems to relax and make something more coherent, consequently making the plight of a minor child character in the middle of the film, and the distress over the potential loss of his parent, far more effective than Arthur witnessing the loss of his own parents at the beginning of the film. Ritchie makes the odd choice of having child Arthur's face be a total emotional blank, which is a bit eerie but also removes the viewer from emotional investment. This is exacerbated when the child's age in this one scene, repeatedly referred back to, seems to fluctuate between helpless infant and boy capable of tossing a sword.
Arthur's youth is shown in montage as his life in the brothel teaches him about scumbags. He learns slight of hand cons in alleyways and, yes, learns Kung Fu so he can protect the prostitutes from belligerent customers. But just because Arthur was raised by prostitutes, don't expect any of them to be a full fledged character or a mother figure. They remain throughout the film interchangeable pretty ladies there for Arthur to protect. In a way, I do like that the film doesn't have a token warrior lady (though this being after the time of Boudica that wouldn't be such an anachronism) and perhaps if Ritchie really feels uncomfortable writing female characters maybe it is best he avoids them almost entirely. But it is conspicuous. The only female character who becomes something like a personality is unnamed, referred simply as "the mage"--played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey with an intriguing, smouldering performance, she too mostly functions as a damsel in distress, except when she unleashes a power near the end that makes you ask, "Why didn't she do this a long time ago?"
Maybe they avoided a warrior woman because that drip, Gal Gadot, was featured as Wonder Woman in two trailers. Good grief, how much longer is Warners going to have money to burn? Well, again, I did have a lot of fun watching King Arthur, so I wouldn't say they're consistently making bad movies but, judging from King Arthur's box office, they are making consistently bad business decisions.