15th May2017

‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou | Written by Guy Ritchie, Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram | Directed by Guy Ritchie

King-Arthur-LOS-poster

After a string of disappointments in the early 21st century, Guy Ritchie redeemed his box office credentials by reimagining Sherlock Holmes as a superheroic, super-stylish buddy cop franchise. Since that IP has established its more urbane form on TV, the maestro of lad culture turns his attention to another Great British legend. The first of a proposed six-film series, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has “shared universe” written all over it. It’s Avengers in chainmail. Loosely adapted from an even looser array of myths, Ritchie delivers a basic rags-to-riches tale, full of cheeky cockneys and slow-fast-slow action. As if we expected anything else.

After a mini Battle of Pelennor (don’t skip the opening or you’ll miss those giant elephants from the trailer), Arthur’s parents are slain by a mysterious dark warrior. Vortigern (Jude Law), Arthur’s uncle, enters the vacuum and rises to be king, while the orphaned Arthur is raised in a Londinium brothel. He trains on the streets; takes a beating; earns respect. Vortigern rules with fear. They are destined for a family reunion, and their opportunity comes when a mysterious sword-in-the-stone reveals itself. There’s plenty of yanking but no joy – until the now-adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) steps up.

Vortigern, having found the one person who can threaten his power, incarcerates Arthur. But Arthur is rescued by a gang led by Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou). Bedivere’s rebels are planning an uprising to overthrow Vortigern, and they could really use the help of Arthur and Excalibur. Arthur is reluctant; it will take the assistance of one of Merlin’s apprentices, the Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), to inspire him to become the leader he’s destined to be. At which point in this synopsis, the film’s title becomes something of a spoiler.

Rise, Sir Charlie Hunnam. He certainly looks the part: he broods with the best of them and has Arthurian Toni & Guy hair. But damn, it’s like Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven all over again. To be fair, a lack of charisma is consistent among the leading roles. Watching Vortigern, one wishes Law were given the freedom to channel some of Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham madness. Hounsou as Bedivere does his wise warrior thing, just like in Gladiator. How about the Mage? She could have been the perfect foil for such a vanilla Arthur. But Bergès-Frisbey’s delivery is utterly flat. This is largely a fault of the writing. Ritchie – so visually creative yet so thematically conservative – wouldn’t dream of reversing the rule that says only the guy can get the wisecracks.

Arthur’s journey has him levelling up toward his realisation as a video game superhero. The powers of Excalibur are not clear, but he basically becomes Talion from Shadow of Mordor, slicing through waves of enemies in bullet time. When Ritchie’s not speeding up or slowing down the footage it becomes apparent that he struggles to direct sustained action. A mid-movie escape scene is full of clatter but light on clarity.

Editorially, the film is a mess, not just in a micro sense (i.e. clear action) but on the macro scale, not least thanks to Ritchie’s penchant for needlessly chopping up the chronology. A sequence in the “Dark Lands” achieves Suicide Squad levels of nonsense, hacked into a tension-free highlights reel, showing not just a disregard for film language but a contempt for the movie’s own fantasy tropes. It’s here that Arthur starts being asked if he’s “seen what he needs to see” in his dreams and visions. Except we then discover that his big revelation is something we the audience were already told an hour ago.

The script isn’t funny enough to enjoy as an irreverent romp, but nor can it muster sufficient depth or gravitas to stir in any dramatic way. Anachronisms are fair enough, but there’s no excuse for dumb dialogue. At one point, Arthur is shown a vision of what will happen to the world if he doesn’t accept his sword-wielding destiny. This much is apparent from the images, yet for some reason we get a whispering voiceover literally stating, “This is what will happen if you don’t act now.”

Let’s look at the positives. The special effects are decent, when the screen isn’t completely swamped in weightless pixels. The plot moves at a good nick (I particularly like how Arthur’s childhood is depicted so briskly, in a bold and funny montage). There are some interesting music cues from composer Daniel Pemberton, who emboldens the picture with a fairly stirring theme. And although it’s not strictly a positive – more of an acknowledgement of what’s missing – I’m intrigued to see what they do with Merlin. An injection of fun, perhaps.

King Arthur is a bad movie. It cannot muster anything like the mesmeric, dreamy quality of John Boorman’s Excalibur, nor its unique thespian charm. Frankly, it is just as misguided and miscast as Antoine Fuqua’s equally boring 2004 attempt. Legend of the Sword is joyless, empty-headed and uninvolving. Five more of these? No, thanks.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is out in cinemas from May 19th.

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