King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by: David Dobkin, Guy Ritchie, Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram
Starring: Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Charlie Hunnam, Djimon Hounsou, Jude Law
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 126 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Uther Pendragon, king of the Britons, kills his enemy Mordred who wanted magic-wielding mages to rule over mankind. However, Uther’s treacherous brother Vortigern, who covets the throne, kills Uther and his wife, the only survivor being Uther’s son Arthur, who drifts away in a boat and eventually winds up in Londinium. There, he’s found and raised by prostitutes, who name him Arthur. He grows into a skilled fighter and man of the streets, alongside his friends Tristan and Backlack. Learning that a mysterious sword has appeared near Vortigern’s castle embedded in a stone, Arthur decides to try his luck and pulls it out, not knowing that it was a test instituted by Vortigern to find his lost nephew….
The latest film based on one of our most enduring and beautiful legends has carried with it more than a whiff of a turkey for some time, and has well and truly bombed at the United States box office. With regard to the latter, some may say that this is because dusty old Arthur and his knights don’t interest movie goers much these days who unfortunately tend to prefer contemporary or futuristic stuff, and it’s true that historical stuff is increasingly becoming the province of older audiences, though I’d also point to the phenomenal success of Game Of Thrones, and I’m pretty sure that if Peter Jackson ever decides to make another Middle Earth epic [though I hope that he doesn’t], the box office receipts will come in thick and fast. More than anything else though, I think that the feeling was that, after director Guy Ritchie’s occasionally entertaining but generally irritating try at rebooting The Man From U.N.C.L.E, people sensed that his new film wasn’t going to be much good either, and they’ve been proven right by this wearying attempt at resurrecting the old chestnut while continuously ramming home the idea that this isn’t your grandfather’s King Arthur.
I’ll admit now that I’ve had a fascination with the Arthurian legends since I was a kid, and usually get some enjoyment out of even the weaker offerings such as First Knight. While it didn’t storm the box office either, I found 2004’s King Arthur to succeed fairly well as a different, gritty, stripped down take on the subject, with fine cinematography, battles scenes and chemistry between a cast which did mostly look as if they fit into the setting, even if its claims of historical accuracy proved to be very fraudulent. I don’t require fidelity to the stories which changed through time anyway: the greatest of all King Arthur films Excalibur changed quite a few things. However, it also retained the flavour of the tales and had a real sense of myth about it. Ritchie’s film seems more inspired by his early films like Snatch and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and there were times where I wondered why characters were called names like Arthur, Tristan and Bedivere in the first place, especially when they co-exist alongside folk with monickers like Kung Fu George and Goose Fat Bill. Ritchie and his co-writers exhibit no love for these great tales, and Ritchie the director obviously feels that he has to jazz up every scene up to stave off audience restlessness, as if he doesn’t have much faith in his screenplay. Style is fine, but after a while King Arthur just becomes tiring with its constant attempts to give each scene some kind of “wow” factor, be it flash forwards, cameras mounted on actor’s heads while they run, or slow motion. The result feels more like a music video than an actual film for much of the time.
We open in quite spectacular fashion with King Uther Pendragon defending Camelot [yes, in this version it’s already been built] from an army of giant elephants under the control of the evil sorcerer Mordred, and it’s almost as if the battles of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith never happened, though this one’s over rather quickly when Uther infiltrates Mordred’s headquarters on one of the elephants and slays him – which could leave a bit of a problem for Ritchie and co. if they make the five sequels to this film he’s talked about as Mordred is supposed to Arthur’s nemesis and ought to turn up much later, but then it’s doubtful that these sequels will be made so I guess it doesn’t really matter now. Upon his victory, however, Uther is betrayed by his younger brother Vortigern, though we don’t see much and, in a nice touch, flash back to see an increasingly fuller version of events as the film progresses. Uther’s young son Arthur manages to escape down the river and thereafter has to survive on the tough streets of Londinium, something shown by a montage which is taken at almost unintelligible speed – but then again the majority of the film seem to be comprised of montages, Ritchie usually being unable to stage a simple dialogue scene without cutting to events elsewhere, previously, in the future or even imagined. It wouldn’t surprise me if some kids who do go to see this movie will take to the amphetamine-enhanced feel of the piece, but I personally found that it made it very hard for me to get involved in the story.
Vortigern becomes increasingly concerned that Uther’s true heir will return one day to reclaim the throne, so he starts to round up all the men of a certain age and challenges them to pull the magical sword Excalibur, which can only be wielded by a descendant of the Pendragon bloodline, from its resting place. When Arthur actually succeeds, thus revealing himself as the prophesized Born King, Vortigern swiftly orders his execution, but Arthur is rescued by a small group of resistance fighters who include a mysterious disciple of Merlin known just as The Mage who encourages him to accept his destiny and put an end to his uncle’s tyrannical rule. Arthur seems quite reluctant, though who can really blame him when having lines spoken to him like: “You’re resisting the sword, but the sword isn’t resisting you”, and appearing to be in more of a Robin Hood film than a King Arthur one. The rest of the plot you could pretty much work out for yourself, and that’s not entirely a bad thing in a film like this, but it cannot decide whether it wants to aim for gritty if slightly comic realism, or all out fantasy, and Ritchie seems ill at ease amongst the latter, which sometimes seems a bit pointless, such as when a poorly CGI animated giant snake gatecrashes a major scene towards the end so the forces of good have more of a chance of winning.
Action-wise there’s quite a thrilling set piece around two thirds of the way with chasing and fighting through and above the streets of Londinium. Here, Ritchie’s annoying tendency to shoot this kind of stuff with slow motion alternating with shakycam seems restrained a little, as if he decided to be kind and allow viewers to actually see properly the mayhem talking place on screen. Elsewhere though, he just overdoes it, and much of the final showdown is a blur. The device of cutting back and forth from scenes taking place in a different locale or time reaches its nadir when Arthur has to go on some kind of journey [I’ve forgotten the reason and can’t be bothered to look it up because the film doesn’t warrant too much time being spent on it] on an island. Shots of Arthur being told what he has to do are intercut with a few seconds worth of shots of him battling various creatures on the island. God forbid that we should be treated to a full-on Arthur vs monster sequence. One thing I will say is that much of the CGI does look quite good and fairly well inserted, though this film is one of the most visually unappealing I’ve seen in some time, continuously grey and miserable looking, something which the moments of humour can’t override. And then there’s Daniel Pemberton’s score which I suppose I would call Celtic Rock. There are times when it does contribute some kinetic excitement in the manner of John Powell’s Bourne scores, but it’s often monotonous and boring, the composer obviously considering him above providing something like a theme.
A far too old Charlie Hunnam does do a quite a good job as Arthur, though his supposedly cockney accent seems to travel all over the country and even sounds like John Lennon on a couple of occasions. Jude Law does the slimy villain-thing reasonably well, David Beckham isn’t quite as bad as I expected in his very brief appearance, and I was pleased to see Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey from the last Pirates Of The Caribbean adventure turn up in another Hollywood film, though her acting ability is sadly far inferior to her looks. There are, to be sure, things for the undemanding moviegoer out for nothing more than a couple of hours worth of entertainment to enjoy in King Arthur, but overall it’s a major misfire and I don’t think that Ritchie and co. were really sure what to do with the material.