LEGEND OF THE SWORD
2017, PG-13, 126 mins.
Charlie Hunnam as Arthur / Jude Law as Vortigern / Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as Mage / Djimon Hounsou as Sir Bedivere / Aidan Gillen as Goosefat Bill Wilson / Eric Bana as King Uther Pendragon / Annabelle Wallis as Maid Maggie / Tom Wu as George / David Beckham as Blackleg leader
Directed by Guy Ritchie / Written by Joby Harold, Ritchie, and Lionel Wigram
KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is the seemingly umpteenth retelling of the classic Arthurian legend, only this time heavily amping up on the pure fantastical elements.
enthusiasm - perhaps a bit too much for his own good...more on that later
- by Guy Ritchie (whom previously retooled another iconic property in SHERLOCK
HOLMES), this new tale of Camelot boasts an exceedingly strong
cast, a massive budget, some striking visuals, and a berserker rage energy
that's sometimes infectious. Sadly,
KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD fails to leave a lasting impression,
mostly because it's an exceedingly obtrusive style over substance affair
without much thoughtful examination of its "legend" in question. It plays like 300 cross morphed
with THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but infinitely more ponderous and messy.
Ritchie has made
some films that I've greatly admired (LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS
and SNATCH) as well as some terribly underrated recent gems (like the
surprisingly decent THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.),
and through and through he imparts his unique stylistic brand to the
proceedings (a kinetic pacing, rapid fire editing, rollicking soundtracks, and a cheeky irreverence).
His esoteric fingerprints can be readily felt all the way through
KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, which certainly gives the film a
crackerjack pacing and sense of aesthetic segregation from the previous
cinematic incarnations of this subject matter.
The problem with this version is not in the looks department, but
rather what lurks beneath its near $200 million budgeted sheen: It fails
to make its titular character a compelling
on screen protagonist. Amidst
all of this film's sorcery, monsters, and swashbuckling dynamism is a
pretty dull origin narrative.
The film opens in
fairly spectacular fashion, which, to be fair, does pack a reasonably
enveloping wallop. The yet to be king Arthur is a young lad that witnesses the
murder of his father, King Uther (Eric Bana), slain by his mad power
hungry uncle Vortigern (a wonderfully cast against type Jude Law).
As a result of this trauma - and Vortigern anointing himself king
in his brother's place - Arthur goes into hiding and is raised by, yes,
prostitutes (but heart-of-gold prostitutes) on the streets of London.
Flashforward several years and we are re-introduced to the adult
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), who looks mightily healthy for a person that grew
up without a place of residence and a ready food supply (the "street
bum" heroes of Ritchie's ancient London have bodies like Chippendale
dancers, perfect teeth, exceedingly well coiffed hair, and leather pants
and coats that don't really hint at a life of abject poverty).
hunky Arthur is called upon to see whether or not he can indeed pull his
daddy's mystical sword "Excalibur" out of a stone (which is
essentially a scheme perpetrated by Vortigern to lure his nephew put of
hiding). Predictably, Arthur
succeeds where all other brothel and non-brothel raised men have failed
and takes to Excalibur as Thor does to Mjolnir, but he's immediately
captured by the nefarious king and scheduled for swift execution.
Thankfully, Arthur has multiple allies that thwart Vortigern's
plans, aided by a mysterious mage (Astrid Berges-Frisby), Sir Bedivere
(Djimon Hounsou), and Goosefat Bill (GAME OF THRONES Aidan Gillen, forever
destined to be typecast playing in fantasies going forward).
Arthur escapes what was certain death and plots his revenge against
the man that killed his father, but launching such a plan - and wielding
the monumentally powerful Excalibur - will require ample effort.
that KING ARTHUR: THE LEGEND OF THE SWORD dares to be audaciously
different and sticks to its creative impulses to re-imagine Arthur and his
future Knights of the Round Table as a full on fantasy that rarely hides behind
such imperatives. This take
is anything but slow moving and grimly downbeat, seeing as Ritchie does
what he can to unleash every tool and trick in his filmmaking arsenal
craft a Arthurian film that doesn't feel like its lazily pilfering from
past movie examples. There
are a few wonderfully realized sequences sprinkled throughout the film,
like the introductory one of the story that features a siege on King
Uther's castle, replete with war ravaging elephants the size of AT-ATs
from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
There's a virtuoso montage later on that showcases the young Arthur
toughening up on the streets of London and becoming a hardened man in the
process. Ritchie brings a
swift aura of ringmaster confidence in these moments that's hard to
Ritchie may be his own worst enemy here, seeing as the film is frequently
too aggressively showy in laying on the director's quirky excesses.
There's no doubt that he keeps the plot racing along at a swift pace throughout, but more often than not KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD
seems reticent to slow itself down, take a breather, and focus on
character dynamics. Heroes
and villains here seem to drown in this film's pixelized excesses: the CGI
is fairly impressive at times, but the overabundance of its feels
suffocating and never really inspires out-of-body sensations of
legitimate awe and wonder in viewers.
For example, just look at the climatic battle between Arthur and
Vortigern, which is so distractingly over-the-top in its computer
generated fakery that it all but erodes any semblance of dramatic impact
such a moment between uncle and nephew could have had.
Considering the massive build-up to this confrontation, I felt
shockingly little for Arthur's attempts to vanquish his enemy.
Arthur himself, whose physically inhabited well Charlie Haunam; he gives
the character a rugged gallantry that is most certainly required.
Unfortunately, this Arthur isn't particularly likeable and has an
anachronistically snarky demeanor that's frankly off-putting at times (and
I'm not entirely sure that knights of ancient London wore modern bomber
leather coats, sported salon quality buzz cuts, and threw everyday
colloquial slang around like they just walked off of a movie set in 2017).
Hunnam is done no favors by his supporting cast, seeing as his
motley crew of sidekicks are barely fleshed out entities.
And for as much joy as I derived watching Jude Law sink his teeth
into playing a back stabbing baddie here, his Vortigern is all posturing
menace. We never really learn what makes this villain tick, which has
the negative consequence of squandering Law's talents in what should have
been a juicy role.
There's so much
cool stuff to drink in and look at in KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD -
magic unleashing action, giant swamp rats, snakes, and elephants, and a
couple of extremely nifty sequences of Arthur unleashing Excalibur in all
of its time slowing, ass kick fury. Ritchie,
to his credit, gives this film a vivacious pulse, but there's very little
emotional heart to it. KING
ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is a fantasy of some strange contradictions:
it's frenetically paced and displays legitimate filmmaking polish, but it
also fails to put any faith its characters and their relationships with
one another, which makes the whole film an empty-minded slog to sit
through. I'm surprised by how
Hollywood has failed to make a decent King Arthur movie over the last
several years with A-list directors: 2004's KING
ARTHUR from Antoine Fuqua was a creative failure, and now
Ritchie's iteration...not as awful, but certainly not legendary as
promised in its title.