8/10 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is careening toward a disastrous reception, and that’s a shame, because it’s awesome.
After betraying his brother, Uther (Eric Bana), King Vortigern (Jude Law) rules England with an iron fist. His cruel kingship is challenged when Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a London brothel bastard, draws the sword Excalibur from its stone, a devastatingly powerful enchanted blade that only answers to the king of England. Arthur rejects the crown, wanting only to return to the slums, but is pushed by Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) to help overthrow the evil king, who’s already gone to the trouble of burning Arthur’s old home anyway.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword weaves a strange and compelling spell. To describe the movie in one word, it’s ominous. There’s a keen sense of impending doom from the first scene onward, one that coexists with writer/director/producer Guy Ritchie’s signature light-heartedness. Though it has plenty of action, this isn’t an action movie — it’s a well-disguised thriller, designed to keep viewers on the edge of their seats through moodiness and anticipation.
A big part of this effect is the movie’s magic, which is god damn scary. King Arthur’s sorcery isn’t about wands or skybeams, it’s animal attacks and nightmarish visions and blood sacrifices. It’s the kind of vile witchcraft that makes you recoil from its practitioners, that it would make sense to burn someone at the stake for.
The tone is further set by grim gaelic music, a subdued black and orange color palette and subtle, so-real-you-could-touch-them special effects. The DC movies are constantly derided for their lack of color, but where those movies shoot color and suck it out in post-production, King Arthur does it right by maintaining high enough contrast to still create compelling images. It gets a little hard to see at some points, though.
With so much of the movie’s malevolence tied up in its visual style and subject matter, the fast-paced editing and light dialogue is doing something completely different. Legend of the Sword may be about kingdoms and Faustian magic, but it also manages to be just as much about fast-talking British punks in the same vein as Ritchie classics like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Sadly, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a Warner Bros. project, and as such, its release has been an embarrassing parade of poor decisions — or would be embarrassing if enough people knew or cared it was coming out. It was moved away from three different release dates for reasons of varying validity — its last switch was to avoid competition from Life, late March’s already-forgotten Alien ripoff that pulled just $30 million domestic — before eventually landing on Mother’s Day weekend as, I guess they thought it would be counterprogramming? Whatever the logic was, it and Snatched will both get eaten up by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in its second weekend.
Under these conditions, this $175 million movie is headed toward a brutal $25 million opening weekend. And while the girls’ night out angle of Snatched will bring in a niche audience for several weeks, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is swimming with the big fish as a through-and-through blockbuster, facing another big-ticket competitor every week — and it doesn’t help that it’s getting absolutely thrashed on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s not a masterpiece, and it’s not even something I’d recommend for everyone — if either fire-and-brimstone medieval movies or pop-crime dramas aren’t your thing, there may be better options — but it’ll grab your attention and not let go for two hours. That deserves way more than mid-twenties on both Rotten Tomatoes and the box office.
Leopold Knopp is a professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.