5/10/2017

Review: 'King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword' Is Guy Ritchie's RockNrolla Version Of Camelot


The benefit of low expectations is that sometimes you are pleasantly surprised, and there was every reason to have low expectations for Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. The much-delayed, much-rewritten, no-buzz-generating film had the whiff of "failed franchise starter' all over it, and with a massive six-movie series in the planning that is quite the failure. It just felt like this year's The Legend of Tarzan, y'know?


If there's one thing Ritchie knows how to do quite well, it's giving a gloss to old properties just as he did for two highly successful Sherlock Holmes movies, not so much for The Man from UNCLE, athough the latter showed the director trying to be reserved for the first time in ages. King Arthur is essentially Snatch or RockNRolla with a Camelot chaser. It's Cockney accents and soccer hooligan slang mixed with swords and sorcery. It's Charlie Hunnam, whose Arthur resembles a combination of his Green Street Hooligans character and Jax Teller from Sons of Anarchy. In short, this Arthurian legend has got NOTHING to do with anything you know. But if you know Ritchie and his signature speed-ramping, hard-knuckle style, then you definitely know this movie.


Beginning with an incredible battle sequence that's like Game of Thrones meets Warcraft, the fabled stronghold of Camelot is overrun by the giant elephant-riding forces of the evil wizard, Mordred. The towers fall, bridges crumble, soldiers die, but when King Uthur Pendragon (Eric Bana, ever the sacrificing hero) heads into battle, his doubting brother Vortigern (Jude Law) told to stay back, the tide of battle turns in Camelot's favor. Soon after the victory, Uthur and his wife would be murdered by a demonic warrior, but not before sending their young son Arthur upstream to safety.


The Guy Ritchiest of Guy Ritchie scenes happens next as we get a speed-ramped origin tale showing Arthur's hard knock life; getting beat up by bullies, thieving, fighting for every scrap of food, then protecting the prostitutes who raised him in a brothel. Imagine all of this, including the prologue, set to a booming rock soundtrack and you've got this movie in a nutshell. You've got Guy Ritchie in a nutshell. If Arthur's montage had been dropped smack in the middle of Snatch you might never have been able to tell. There are unreliable storytellers, gangs, rogues, sacks of gold... the only thing missing was a Vinnie Jones or Jason Statham appearance, although we do get David Beckham; see if you can spot him.


Arthur stumbles into trouble by picking a fight, which isn't shocking. He's a classic Ritchie character; a bar brawler with a heart of gold, except for bullies. This puts him on the path to pulling the sword Excalibur from the magical stone, and since the only one who can do it is Uthur's direct heir, this puts a target on Arthur's back. Despite not wanting to be a hero, he joins up with a rebellious group led by the mysterious mage, Guinevere (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who can warg into animals; Uthur's loyal warrior-knight Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), Goosefat Bill Watson (Aiden Gillen), and other lowlifes to restore the kingdom by defeating Vortigern, who is powered by dark forces that require a heavy toll.


The smartest move Ritchie and co-writers Joby Harold (who came up with this idea years ago) and Lionel Wigram was to ditch any sense of realism. Antoine Fuqua tried that a decade ago with his King Arthur movie and it was, to put it bluntly, damned boring. Ritchie's version seems to be inspired by video games as much as anything, not just the aforementioned Warcraft but role playing games. When Arthur channels the full power of Excalibur, he undergoes a "limit break" (word to PDC writer Julian Lytle) or level up that slows down the action while he tears across the battlefield. It's a sweet-looking visual and a twist on the "Bullet Time" that's been played out since 1999. The final battle is messy swirl of CGI that, if it were in a video game, you'd grow tired of and furiously press the button to skip after a minute or so. It's not Ritchie's strength, what little emotional stakes fly away like sparks off two clanging broadswords.


A severe lack of nobility is the trade-off to Ritchie turning Arthurian legend into a pseudo-prequel to Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Arthur has to grow into his role as a champion of the people, but even when he accepts his fate, that's really all it is: acceptance. He still comes across as more of a vengeful brute than a true King. Maybe that's something to be explored in one of the many sequels if they ever come to be.


If they do, Hunnam is the right guy to be at the center of them. Between this and The Lost City of Z he's having the best year of his career, and is really coming into his own. He holds up well against Law, who I think was made to play sneering villains, even ones who inexplicably seem to be wearing Armani suits while everyone else is in rags. This is the Dark Ages or something, right? Ah, who cares? Put them all in Armani. In Ritchie's outlandish and wondrous King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, something so absurd might actually work. If that bothers you, then this movie wasn't for you, anyway.

Rating: 3 out of 5