King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, 2017.
Directed by Guy Ritchie.
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Annabelle Wallis, David Beckham and Poppy Delevingne.
Robbed of his birthright, Arthur comes up the hard way in the back alleys of the city. But once he pulls the sword from the stone, he is forced to acknowledge his true legacy – whether he likes it or not.
Guy Ritchie just might be one of the most inconsistent filmmakers working today, yet up against a heap of low expectations, his gonzo take on King Arthur’s origins proves to be a giddily entertaining surprise. Those craving a faithful rendition of the Arthurian legend should absolutely look elsewhere, but as a stylishly over-the-top, banter-filled romp caught somewhere between the fist-pumping bombast of Zack Snyder’s 300 and the stylish grit of 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, it’s one of the year’s most unexpectedly decent blockbusters to date.
In this very, very loose riff on the classic tale, young Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is mercilessly slaughtered by the evil Vortigern (Jude Law), who usurps his throne and rules with an iron fist. Arthur grows up in the back streets of Londinium in anonymity before, as a young man (Charlie Hunnam), being faced with the mythical sword Excalibur and learning of his lineage. This naturally catches Vortigern’s attention, and so Arthur must decide whether to turn his back on a downtrodden kingdom, or lead a frenzied revolt against the mad King.
This ain’t your grandpa’s King Arthur, that’s for sure. It’s not even 2004’s Clive Owen-starring effort, yet that’s probably for the best. Rather, Ritchie intentionally pares the narrative down as much as possible in order to place a keener focus on all the outrageous, CGI-driven action. Though the movie’s marketing has played-up the big-scale battles, much of this is actually done with in the opening prologue, while the film proper instead lets loose with more self-contained chases and fights, a cavalcade of gigantic animals – most too deliciously ridiculous to spoil – and other incredibly silly supernatural hooey.
It’s usually derisive to refer to a movie’s action as “video game-esque”, but the energy and verve that Ritchie brings to the glossy set-pieces, especially compared to the aforementioned stillborn 2004 effort, is very much welcome. Touted somewhat dubiously as the first in a series of six films, this nevertheless feels like the movie Ritchie always set out to make, with few compromises along the way.
It is a strong production for sure, with most if not all of its $175 million budget appearing to have made it onto the screen, though it’s also worth noting that as gorgeous as the digitally-assisted battles and sweeping vistas look, the cinematography takes a bit of a hit during darker scenes, where a lot of grain and visual noise is incredibly noticeable. It’s pretty embarrassing for such an expensive film, because this ain’t exactly The Wrestler.
Editing, meanwhile, is excellent in typical Ritchie fashion; there’s are several hilariously disorientating storytelling sequences that rely on pin-sharp editing to fire out rat-a-tat dialogue with the requisite ferocity, recalling a similar trick he employed in his Sherlock Holmes films.
The numerous montages and action sequences meanwhile have a firm punchiness to them that so many other similar movies lack, aided no doubt by a brilliantly intense musical score from Daniel Pemberton, which just might be the year’s best so far. If you’re not at least a little pumped by the signature track, “Growing Up Londinium” – which is used as a “shit is going down” leitmotif during several set-pieces – you just might be dead.
Ritchie takes a page out of so many reboot jaunts of recent years by fashioning his take on King Arthur as a quasi-superhero origin story, which may have been patently less believable in the hands of an actor other than Charlie Hunnam. Fresh off his sublime work on The Lost City of Z, Hunnam is proving himself to be having quite the year, creating a charming, witty Arthur who sweats charisma and brings plenty of that prototypical Ritchie cheekiness to the fore.
His banter with Aidan Gillen, Neil Maskell and Djimon Hounsou, who play co-revolutionaries Goosefat Bill, Backlack and Sir Bedivere, is especially entertaining, but that’s not to discount his amusing patter with a French sorceress crucial to his quest (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey). Far more than merely an attractive exotic actress landing a Hollywood paycheck role, Bergès-Frisbey brings the film’s only significant female presence – The Mummy‘s Annabelle Wallis shows up for a pair of scenes you won’t soon remember – and does a great job keeping up with her larger-than-life male counterparts.
It would be remiss not to mention Jude Law, who does some rock solid work as the evil King, though doesn’t quite dial it up to 11 or go full ham as you might both expect and want. At the same time, if you do desire to see him cut a guy’s ear off and then sarcastically talk to it, this just might be the movie for you.
Oh, and David Beckham’s in it, too, in a blatant cameo as one of Vortigern’s heavily-scarred soldiers that’s at once extremely bizarre and perversely amusing. Having previously cameoed as a projectionist in Ritchie’s last film, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it looks like this might become a running Ritchie gag from this point onwards.
All things considered, is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword a great film? Absolutely not; there’s way too much exposition during the downtime between action sequences, there are aspects of the plot that scarcely seem to make much sense at all, and some may find the sheer abundance of CGI-driven action ultimately quite exhausting. And that’s without speaking of the excessive liberties taken with the source material.
However, if you’re down for some riotously over-the-top action involving giant animals and ridiculous magic, cheeky one-liners and actors you (probably) like doing supremely cool things, this King Arthur retooling just might be worth a sit. In fact, a sequel even sounds like a not-terrible idea, though Warner Bros. might want to slow their roll when it comes to making more far-flung plans.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.