Starring: Charlie Hunman, Jude Law, Eric Bana
Director: Guy Ritchie
Running Time: 126 mins
Synopsis: After the death of his father, young Arthur’s power hungry uncle Vortigern (Law) seizes control of the kingdom. Raised on the streets and brothels of Londonium, a now grown up Arthur (Hunman) has to face his destiny when the fabled Excalibur sword appears buried in an ancient stone.
Guy Ritchie is fast becoming a verb. To wit: Ritchied; verb, meaning to take a classic literary figure/story and turning him (it’s always a male) into a street-wise brawling fighter usually with a cockney accent. Add in manic editing, kinetic action and a soupcon of brash coolness. Having made the idea work with his two Sherlock Holmes films, powered along as they were through terrific cast chemistry, a believably well sketched alternate London and some muscular action, he turns now to the ancient legend of King Arthur. The results are Ritchied to the extreme with all that entails, leaving me with trepidation but a mild curiosity for his live action take on Disney’s Aladdin next year.
Opening with a scene that could have come from a Lord of the Rings film rather than from the director of Lock, Stock… we fly across an ancient battlefield as giant elephants stampede over armies battling for supremacy. This is olde Britain but not as we know it. Ritchie has framed his Arthur tale in the fictional story of mage vs human. This particular Mage has begun an all out war against King Pendragon (a decent cameo from Eric Bana) who is unaware the Mage has made a deal with his brother Vortigern. Unsheathing the mystical blade Excalibur, which can somehow slow down time and lay waste to scores of people instantly, the King leads the charge into battle. It is a bracing prologue, with its bombastic score (Daniel Pemberton composes a strong aural landscape here using old school instruments), elephantine enemies and Ritchie’s ever present jolting editing. After the battle is seemingly won, things take a darker turn as Vortigern’s plan takes hold. Forced to ship his young son away as the King gives his life, Ritchie then graces us with one of many many playful editing tricks shifting time with gleeful abandon. Watching Arthur grow up on the streets as he fights, trains and earns his way to a proper East-End gangster’s life. It is a fast-paced animalistic montage and possibly one of the best moments in a film sorely lacking from memorable scenes.
Full Ritchy takes hold when we finally settle on an adult Arthur. Living in a brothel so the filmmakers can show he has a heart of gold as he protects the routinely beaten prostitutes. Meeting his gang of fellow street-wise lads, with all their cockney banter and law breaking ladishness (I’m well aware this isn’t a word but with Guy you sort of have to do these things) very familiar to literally any other Ritchie film. There is a nice warmth to their friendship, especially with Neil Maskell’s Back Lack. It is all very masculine and obnoxious but watchable nonetheless. Charlie Hunman offers glimmers throughout of a more charismatic laidback future leader of men, but the leaden script hampers him from truly coming alive. The hackneyed dialogue, especially when anything vaguely fantastical is being spoken of, is very sluggish.
His Arthur becomes most egregious once the infamous sword is removed from stone. After a contrived plot turn gets him in front of the newly revealed sword we then are forced to witness one of cinema’s greatest crimes, a David Beckham cameo. Coming just as the future King is easing the sword loose from its tight bonds, Beckham delivers a whiny dead-weighted performance that manages to undermine what should be this films’ major turning point. After this plot-starting affair Ritchie doesn’t let up the brakes. A selling point is that the film keeps you involved throughout its lengthy running time, although lags do present themselves. But it is also after this point where the film gets away from him.
With the sword in tow Arthur begins a journey of discovery into who he is and what his destiny calls for, Hunman must deliver repeated cliched lines of how he isn’t ready for this and a desire to just go back to his low-key existence. A usual throughline for most hero films, with the point here being laboured far too much. It doesn’t help that surrounding Arthur are new allies determined to unlock within him this potential. Djimon Hounsou gives good stoic banter as Bedivere, an old friend of his father, and Aidan Gillen gets to be charming without the GoT sleaze we are accustomed to as Bill. They have a solid chemistry but rarely come alive as interesting folk beyond the warm performances. The final piece of the puzzle belongs to Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the mysterious Mage. She is the door to the films fantastical elements, elements which although visually compelling are uncomfortably wedged into the more grounded aspects.
Going on a journey into some badly contextualised alternate land Arthur battles giant bats, rats and snakes that, whilst offering thrills, feel woefully out of place. It is endemic of the entire film that the geography and location of the story is never explicitly made clear. Other than the Londinium portions, which even then seem to feature fictional coliseums in the heart of Olde London, there is no tangible setting to familiarise yourself with. Think of the high fantasy worlds of say LoTR or GoT, each has a clear sense of place with the use of real world locations adding weight. Ritchie does use on-set locations but they are too often replaced in favour of greenscreened soulless settings.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword just never seems sure of itself, does it want to be a gritty street level brawler (the aspect where this film is at its strongest) or a high-concept fantasy? Originally filmed way back in 2014 but delayed due to release date clashes, I feel this is Hollywood speak for a internal battle over what the film should be. Ritchie himself has said this was one of the hardest films to edit. Said editing does offer real invention, with the aforementioned use of time jumps effectively staged if used a little too often. Frequent set-pieces are broken into before, during and after but spliced together simultaneously. Ritchie still knows how to mount a bruising fight scene but the final act dissolves into hopelessly poor CGI battles that look more at home as a videogame cutscene than a big budget blockbuster (with the massive gap between production and release I’m astounded at how weak the effects work can be).
One person in all this Ritchiness at least understands the high-cheese nature of things and that is Jude Law. Re-teaming with his Holmes director, he makes his evil Vortigern a sneering wicked delight. In giving over all that he loves for power Law even manages to wrestle some blunt emotion into proceedings but alas even he feels weighed down by the dire-logue and excessive CGI. When a giant snake attacks his throne room in the final act the look of sheer exhausted surprise on his face sums up exactly what the film has become, in that moment I felt ever so sad for what Law had signed himself up for.
The first in a proposed 6-film series (although the movies’ dismal US box office performance will most likely save us from that) King Arthur is a sign of a film that came away from its director. Perhaps we need to amend that verb definition: Ritchied; meaning to take a classic literary figure/story that is powerful enough on its own but add in unnecessary CGI creatures in order to staggeringly misjudge your audience’s attention span, with extra David Beckham. The prognosis for Aladdin does not look promising.
Verdict: Never managing to align its Guy Ritchie gritty bantering geezerisms with the fantastical flights of fantasy, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is brash, bombastic and woefully misjudged.