King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Aidan Gillen
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If you’re easily pleased by a bit of well-rendered CGI spectacle and cod-fantasy set dressing, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword will scratch that itch.
You know within moments that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is nonsense when the evil wizard Mordred (Rob Knighton) uses gigantic elephants, hundreds of feet tall with wrecking balls swinging from their trunks, to lay siege to Camelot, and good king Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana, picking up a paycheque) responds by springing into action like a Jedi Knight, pirouetting through the air to take them on single-handedly with trusty ol’ Excalibur.
You know that it’s Guy Ritchie nonsense when we catch up with Uther’s son Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) years later as a kind of medieval wide boy, running a gang of chancers in “Londinium”, protecting a brothel full of kindly prostitutes, and learning MMA from a character called, we kid you not, Kung Fu George (Tom Wu).
The question is, is it enjoyable nonsense?
Up to a point, and that point is where you start wanting it to show any originality or make any kind of real sense. If you have a fairly cynical mental picture of what “Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur” might look like, odds are good that it maps onto the actual film pretty closely. There’s a lot of tough talking in Cockney street cant, slow motion fight scenes, several “tell the plan as we show the action” sequences, and a completely anachronistic approach to tone and technology (those familiar with Arthurian legend will know this is nothing new).
In terms of plot, we have Arthur, orphaned when his uncle, the evil Vortigern (Jude Law giving good villain) seized power, growing to manhood in the stews of the capital and building a small but ambitious criminal empire before destiny comes a-knocking and he finds himself the de facto leader of a popular resistance. In this, the film mixes in some elements from that other great British folk legend, Robin Hood, albeit with an intriguing urban angle.
Indeed, the most enjoyable parts of the film (and clearly the pieces Ritchie is most comfortable with) are when it’s playing out like a costume drama Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. It’s when myth and magic are introduced that the film starts to wobble, before handballing the whole problem to the doughty rendering farms of South Korea. The film cheerfully pillages from a dozen or so fantasy and sci-films, not to mention books and comics, with no rhyme or reason. Sometimes this results in a bit of playful fun – Vortigern’s “Black Legs” soldiers, Stormtroopers in all but name, wear armour inspired by Judge Dredd, and one villain is basically a Frazetta painting come to life – but generally it just imbues the proceedings with the dank odour of inauthenticity and unoriginality, such as when Arthur basically undergoes The Trial of the Tree from The Empire Strikes Back just to kill ten minutes or so and bump up the CGI creature count.
There’s a lot of wheel-spinning, actually. Arthur is the most reluctant of reluctant heroes, Refusing the Call, as Campbell called it, for way longer than is interesting or even practical, only really stepping up to the plate once he figures out how to bloodlessly slaughter all-comers with a powered-up Excalibur. It’s left to the ever-watchable likes of Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen to do the heavy lifting as two senior resistance leaders, driving the plot forward and being far more watchable than our handsome but dull and, frankly, rather selfish nominal hero.
But the big problem with Legend of the Sword is that it doesn’t seem to know what it’s about. Arthurian stories can be shaped to serve almost whatever theme you like, from Boorman’s Frazierian Dying King cycle, to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist parables, to Antoine Fuqua’s senseless but still rather fun “realistic” reimagining. Ritchie’s version is pulled in a number of different conflicting directions, but never seems to settle on any one, ultimate thesis. The most obvious divisions here are along class lines, with Arthur’s streetwise lads taking on the born-to-rule Vortigern and his minions, but those waters are muddied by Arthur’s royal – and magical – bloodline, resulting in a weird proletarian monarchist tone.
In the end, when a subplot about stopping Vikings from controlling English (never British in this version) shipping lanes is wrapped up, Legend of the Sword feels staunchly nationalist, a King Arthur for the pro-Brexit crowd, saving England for the (admittedly diverse, in terms of this cast) English, with a laddish lord on the throne and his trusty lieutenants all elevated to positions of power in an obvious bit of “jobs for the boys” quid pro quo. If the movie was in any way smart, this could be read as the most subversive take on the Arthur story yet. As it stands, it’s just vaguely troubling and unsatisfying.
If you’re easily pleased by a bit of well-rendered CGI spectacle and cod-fantasy set dressing, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword will scratch that itch. If, however, you’re interested in anything even a millimetre deeper than that, you’re in for a bad time.