King Arthur: Legend of the SwordReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/11/17 01:10:54
With all due respect to the classic comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), the best feature film ever made centering around the legend of King Arthur remains John Boorman’s 1981 epic “Excalibur,” a film that presented the familiar saga in a visually extraordinary manner that nevertheless did not skimp on the story and the themes that have intrigued and obsessed audiences for centuries. Perhaps recognizing that any attempt to recreate that exquisite balance of spectacle and serious-minded storytelling, no matter how well-intentioned it might have been, would only suffer in comparison to Boorman’s film, the last couple of major films related to the subject—“First Knight” (1995) and “King Arthur” (2004)—have elected to downplay the glitz factor in order to approach the material in a more down-to-earth manner. Alas, the problem in those cases is that they tried so hard to keep it real that the films eventually became tedious bores that seemed to go out of their way to suck all of the fun and interest out of the material. Considering the tepid reception that those films received (and I can almost guarantee that you forgot that the latter one existed until I mentioned it just now, unless your name is Keira Knightley and even then, I am not so sure you didn’t forget about it), the notion that the next person to take a crack at all things Arthurian would decide to emphasize the spectacle aspect is probably not that much of a surprise. Alas, it is our bad luck that the one who would choose to step up to the challenge would be Guy Ritchie, the once-interesting creator of the quirky British crime dramas “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch who has lately spent his time working on loud and largely tiresome epics as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and those Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., who has now inflicted upon us all “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” This may not be the worst film that Ritchie has ever made—which says more about the absolute depths stuck by the likes of his “Swept Away” remake and the truly inexplicable likes of “Revolver” and “RocknRolla” than anything else—but in terms of squandering both seemingly surefire material and a massive budget, it surely deserves some kind of booby prize for the vast array of failings on display.As he did with the Sherlock Holmes films, Ritchie has elected to chuck most of the previously established ideas and concepts surrounding the Arthurian legend for a putatively grittier take on the material that is more befitting with his rough-and-tumble storytelling approach. Here, after establishing the heroic bona fides of the infant Arthur’s father, King Uther (Eric Bana), by having him single-handedly save his kingdom of Camelot from an attack by an army wielding gigantic elephants as weapons, Uther is betrayed by his power-mad magician brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), who kills both him and his own wife—the latter sacrificed to, I kid you not, a giant sex squid as a way of consolidating his power (and no, I fear that neither “giant sex squid” nor “Jude Law” are euphemisms). Young Arthur escapes in a boat and is rescued by a group of prostitutes who raise him in their brothel with none of them having any idea of who he truly is. One passing-of-time montage later and when we next see Arthur (now played by Charlie Hunnam), he is still at the brothel and is, for all intents and purposes, the house pimp, albeit one so benevolent that he makes the guys in “Night Shift” seem like the guy from “Hardcore” by comparison. Of course, he is no pushover and when some Vikings mess with one of the prostitutes, he has to get a little rough with them.
In an extremely convoluted manner—which is pretty much par for the course here—this leads to Arthur being rounded up with others his age and forced to attempt to pull Uther’s fabled sword out of the stone in which it is encased. Only Uther’s direct heir can remove the sword and Vortigern is obsessed with finding the one person who can do it so that he can kill him instantly and prevent any potential challengers to his throne. Naturally, Arthur pulls out the sword but before he can be publicly executed, he is rescued by a squad of rebels led by a mysterious and unnamed mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and taking to their hidden headquarters in the woods, where Bedevere (Djimon Hounsou) tells him of his true heritage and asks him to help lead the rebellion against Vortigern. Naturally, Arthur wants nothing to do with any of it but gradually begins to work with the others to defeat the armies of his uncle and reclaim his proper place as the leader of Camelot. (And yes, that aforementioned giant sex squid does make a reappearance, for those of you scoring at home.)
You have to hand it to Ritchie and co-writers Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram—it takes a certain talent, for lack of a better word, to take one of the most well-known stories imaginable and render as completely incoherent as they do with the Arthur legend here. On the one hand, the film wants to give viewers a more down-to-earth take on the story that positions Arthur as the medieval equivalent of the rogues and knaves that populated his early efforts while utilizing the hyperkinetic and hyper-stylized narrative approach that juiced up the proceedings in those films. On the other, it also wants to be a typical would-be blockbuster consisting of an endless string of action set-pieces filled with CGI-generated locales, extras and assorted visual effects meant to suggest a more overtly fantasy-oriented take on the material. To even attempt to fuse the two approaches together into a seamless whole would challenge even the deftest of filmmakers so it is perhaps not surprising that Ritchie botches the job almost right from the start. The action scenes are terribly designed, indifferently executed and given an overwhelming frosting of shabby-looking CGI that helps stop everything dead in its tracks. (The action scenes in “Lancelot du Lac” were more propulsive than those seen here and Robert Bresson was not exactly the Michael Bay of his time.) As bad as it is when it is trying to be a standard-issue spectacle of the most utterly generic variety, the film is even worse when it tries to be a typical Guy Ritchie joint by deploying the bad boy swagger and stylistic tics that are a frequent hallmark of his work but which do not fit with this choice of material at all. As a result, the film is less a battle between Arthur and his treacherous uncle as it is between two completely incompatible tones and trust me, you won’t be rooting for either side to win in this case.
Even the characters are completely nondescript as well, partly because of the incredible thinness of the parts themselves and the listlessness of the actors. In theory, Charlie Hunnam would seem to be a good choice for Arthur (though perhaps a tad too old to be convincingly referred to as “the boy king,” as he frequently is here) but he seems unable to find a plausible way of playing the role and winds up spending most of his time posing instead of performing. Of course, his half-assed efforts seem focused and committed in comparison to the zero-assed work done by Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the unnamed mage—her performance here is as terrible as she is beautiful and I assure you that she is absolutely gorgeous throughout. At least her performance is so bad that you kind of remember it—most of the rest of the cast is so unmemorable that when Arthur knights some of them at the end, it seem less like a natural conclusion to their story arcs and more like a desperate last-minute attempt on Ritchie’s part to get you to actually remember their names. The closest thing to a fun performance—and it is still a very long distance from actually being that—is the one turned in by Jude Law, who takes a blatantly campy approach to his performance as Vortigern that is basically a ripoff of Alan Rickman’s memorable turn in the otherwise unmemorable “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” that does inspire a laugh or two. Alas, even though he would seem to have a better grasp on what Ritchie is going for, having worked with him on the “Sherlock Holmes” films, even he too often seems clueless as to what is expected of him.“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” does contain one undeniably effective moment—an inspired and evocative bit that presents a nifty explanation of how the titular weapon (don’t bother calling it Excalibur because no one else does) with perhaps the closest that Ritchie has ever come to suggesting subtlety and nuance in his entire career. Unfortunately, one moment does not a movie make and I found myself finally resenting even that bit in a way for being wasted on such a slipshod effort instead of appearing in one more worthy of it. Other than that, the only real virtue that it has is the utterly forgettable nature of the entire enterprise—instead of evaporating from the mind as soon as it is seen, which is standard for a lot of sorry spectacles these days, this one is so lackluster that the scenes seem to vanish from the mind even before they hit the screen. Astonishingly, this film was originally conceived as being the first part of a potential six-film franchise, though I have serious doubts that it will do well enough to rate even a second installment, let alone the full half-dozen. Of course, stranger things have happened and if all of the other chapters wind up getting made after all, here is hoping that Sex Squid is given the right of director approval for them.
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