by Emma Smith, Reporter
What if King Arthur was one of us? Just a witty, down-on-his-luck criminal like all of us? Just a stranger in a boat, having forgotten his way home? These are the somewhat unexpected questions answered by Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Buckle up, viewers, because this is not your dad’s King Arthur.
Minor Spoilers Ahead
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword tells the story of a hardscrabble Arthur. When his (secretly a mage!) uncle Vortigern kills his parents in order to take over the kingdom, a tiny Arthur barely escapes with his life. He floats down the Thames alone until he is rescued by some harlots with hearts of gold (only hookers adopted kids in medieval times according to my entirely unscientific movie survey). Arthur has an hard upbringing full of fighting, dirt, and domestic violence. Once his efficient growth montage is out of the way (like Rocky but with kids!), we get to the meat of the story. His uncle is set on finding him, killing him, and eliminating the last threat to the throne. Arthur, his head buried deep in the sand of denial, insists he’s nothing special even after he pulls Excalibur out of solid rock. The oppressed people of England hope that the “Born King” can rescue them from Vortigern’s rule. A mysterious French mage (sorry, Merlin is not sexy enough for this production), a handful of former knights leading the resistance, and Arthur’s hustler pals band together to aid him in his quest against Vortigern. In order to properly wield Excalibur, Arthur must go on not only a physical journey but also a journey of emotional discovery.
There’s not a lot of King Arthur in King Arthur: LOTS (this is my new favorite film title acronym), despite his name being in the title. There is a man named Arthur and *spoiler alert* (But not really because the ending is entirely predictable) he does become a king eventually. It’s just that he doesn’t bear much resemblance to the King Arthur he is based on. Guy Ritchie mostly consigns the originating legend to the dustbin after picking out the shiny, fun bits that appeal to his magpie directorial aesthetic. This is not to say that King Arthur: LOTS isn’t fun. Parts of it are LOTS and LOTS of fun (ok, I’ll stop now). It’s more that Guy Ritchie seems to have become so enamored with his favorite parts of writing and directing that he forgot to put in the work to make the other parts of his film good.
If you’ve seen a Guy Ritchie film before (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), you know to expect fast-cracking dialogue, frenetically edited action sequences, and sarcastic, hardscrabble characters. These form the core of his version of medieval England just as much as they do his more modern films. Several sequences of snappy, back and forth dialogue exchanges draw laughter. There are also several entertaining action sequences that wend through the streets of old Londinium (not historically accurate but if you’re a history professor, I’m sure your aneurism will have already kicked in by that point). There is even an Ocean’s Eleven style heist planning sequence. Arthur and his crew are irreverent, even when faced with nearly impossible odds against a power mad enemy.
Indeed, the actors’ performances are the most fun part of the film. Charlie Hunnam is Arthur (Sons of Anarchy) and his crew is Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) as “Duck Fat” Bill, Djimon Hounsou (Air) as Bedivere, Kingsley Ben-Adir (Trespass Against Us) as Wet Stick, Neil Maskell (Utopia) as Black Lack, Tom Wu (Marco Polo) as George, Bleu Landau (Eastenders) as Blue, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (Angels of Sex) as the Mage. Hunnam manages to bring depth and a sense of reluctant heroism to his character in addition to delivering the wise-cracks one expects. Gillen is the most fun to watch as a sarcastic outlaw, but Ben-Adir and Maskell give him a run for his money as Arthur’s childhood friends, playing off each other very well. Jude Law (The Young Pope) as the evil Vortigern, Peter Ferdinando (Safe House) as the Earl of Mercia, and Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones) as Jack’s Eye are the villains in this tale. Jude Law chews scenery by the handful as the evil usurper. Unfortunately his performance trends too much toward petulant to be intimidating. Ferdinando manages “ominous” better as the practical evil behind the throne, and McElhatton does an entertaining turn as a medieval times dirty cop. In general the acting is impressive. As a bonus, David Beckham pops up for a brief, but fun, cameo.
The intimate acting moments and street fight scenes are well done, but the film falters in the epic part of the story. It is intended to be a story of battles between thousands, of deep earth magic, of betrayal and greed, of travels through forested mountains, a story of legend (at least the shiny bits of it). The epic battle scenes are so reliant on video-game-style CGI (elephants for no reason!, vaguely orc-like troops!) that they drop deep into the uncanny valley on the big screen. The transitions between the heavily stylized CGI depictions of magic and the shots of natural world from which the characters are drawing that power are often jarring. The story also threatens to collapse under it’s own weight – at times the characters act in ways that are illogical or inconsistent with their previous development in order to move the story forward or a serpens-ex-machina appears to save the day.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is enjoyable if you are a fan of Guy Ritchie’s directorial style, willing to forgive some level of plot inconsistency in search of great action sequences, or just really want to see Charlie Hunnam shirtless (worth it). Though it’s flaws keep it from reaching greatness, it makes for a fun spring blockbuster and there are some visually stunning uses of 3D.
ComicsOnline gives King Arthur: Legend of the Sword 3 out of 5 SURPISE-GIANT-SNAKES.
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