ACTION-FUELED “KING ARTHUR” MISSING THE MEDIEVAL MAGIC
A Film Review by Tim Riley
KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (Rated PG-13) Once upon a time, in a far-away kingdom, director Guy Ritchie had an exciting signature style for his crime dramas, notably “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” the latter starring Brad Pitt and British tough guys Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones. Then Ritchie married Madonna, and it seemed that his work started to go downhill, especially since his then-spouse was cast in the leading role of the execrable romantic comedy “Swept Away,” a title that was oddly prophetic if you think about it. Now if only Ritchie could reunite with action stars like Statham or Jones, maybe he would get back in the game. Yet, getting Charlie Hunnam, who captured attention on cable TV as a biker in a motorcycle gang in the long-running “Sons of Anarchy,” was a coup, of sorts. The trouble, of course, is that “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a medieval adventure, and the swagger of an outlaw biker may not be the best fit for a would-be monarch, but at least Hunnam gives Arthur a gritty, modern edge that Ritchie evidently had in mind.
At a minimum, everyone has a vague perception of the Arthurian legend, one that involves the king’s identity revealed by his ability to extract the Excalibur sword from stone and leading the Knights of the Round Table on chivalrous missions. This being a Guy Ritchie film, “King Arthur” does not resist its rudimentary impulse for epic fantasy action that is realized right from the start when elephants the size of oil tankers rampage across the kingdom in a path of utter destruction. In the opening scenes, the young child Arthur bears somber witness to the murder of his kind-hearted father, King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), at the hands of the monarch’s treacherous brother Vortigern (Jude Law, suitably slimy and villainous).
Dispatched to Londinium to be raised far from the reach of a vengeful Vortigern, the child Arthur is a ruffian and street urchin living in a brothel, running the streets, learning to fight and dodging the law with his mates. Growing up poor and scrapping for every bit of advantage, the young Arthur is completely unaware of his true provenance, until he’s shipped off to Camelot where he, like every man of a certain age, is to put to a test to pull a sword from stone. The premise boils down to taking a shrewd street thug with an irreverence for authority, yanking out of his barebones existence and surrounding him with otherworldly magic and colossal creatures, and then thrusting him into the uncomfortable position of having royal blood. Pulling the Excalibur from the hunk of stone is the closest thing to a death sentence, as Vortigern set up this test to find his long-lost nephew only for the purpose of removing the most serious threat to the throne.Well, Arthur may be a reluctant hero but ending up in prison with a date for execution motivates a dedicated group to topple the illegitimate king, and so Arthur gets help from the mysterious Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), among others.
Naturally, there will be a raging battle between Arthur’s ragtag bunch and Vortigern’s well-equipped army and his willingness to conjure up mystical forces to fend off Arthur’s claim to what is rightfully his “King Arthur” is full of special effects, including grotesque creatures ranging from giant dragons to venomous snakes larger than New York subway trains. Guy Ritchie simply can’t resist going over the top to dazzle the audience with sword and sorcery nonsense. One gets the feeling that Ritchie’s version of the King Arthur legend and the mystical origin story of the Excalibur sword’s sway and the resulting struggle for power were heavily influenced by many late-night viewings of “Game of Thrones.”
Jude Law, though, steals the show, proving that an actor who can truly deliver on being convincingly evil and treacherous has a leg up on any competition. The others pale in comparison, if only because they are either too virtuous or just don’t loom large in the grand scheme.A fair argument can be made that “King Arthur” is a somewhat noble experiment by Ritchie to come up with a summer popcorn entertainment that asks little of the audience other than to sit back and enjoy the ride. A loud and boisterous mindless adventure can be rewarding in some respects, but in the end “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is too much noise and not enough story with the necessary nuance to be intriguing or compelling.