Guy Ritchie seemed like a strange director choice for a new take on the legend of King Arthur. Then again, he was a strange choice for Sherlock Holmes, yet delivered a decent pair of films which bore more similarities to the books than a lot of other adaptations have managed. So it was I was willing to give him a chance. Unfortunately, it seemed like he had one idea of how the film should play as a gritty, cockney based revenge film, much in the vein of a lot of his work, but had a script which called for magical beasts and mythical elements which he is clearly out of his depth with.
I’m not going to get bogged down bemoaning the changes to the traditional legend. I’m perfectly fine with giant elephants and snakes being conjured up, and strange mermaid creatures with tentacled lower halves, just as I have always been fine with talking dragons, crazy welsh wizards, or musical magical songs in other interpretations. Heck, I was even fine with the more historical inspired Clive Owen film. Suffice to say this version’s failings are not down to the eccentricities of myth and legend that it presents. Indeed, dubious CGI aside, the sight of gigantic elephants crashing into a bridge, sending armies plummeting to their deaths is actually pretty decent.
Where this film goes wrong is that it swiftly becomes a stylised cockney-gangster film, and the tone of such scenes feels terribly out of place with the mythical aspects. You see, the basic tale has it that after the death of Mordred, Uther Pendragon’s treacherous brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), instigates a coup and sacrifices his wife to the sea witches to send a demon knight to slay Uther and his wife and child. However the child is carried to safety and grows up to be (dah dah daaaaah)….Arthur (Charlie Humdrum…I mean Hunnam), a rather feared cockney gangster, running protection rackets and stuff. When a mysterious magical sword appears near Vortigern’s castle, many line up to try to pull the sword from the stone and claim their lineage. Arthur achieves it, and then finds himself hunted by Vortigern. He must quest to find a way to overthrow the mad king and free the land from tyranny.
Yup, that’s the ‘basic’ tale. I have skipped a fair few elements, and that is maybe what Ritchie should have done. You see, this is yet another one of those films that believes it is the start of a franchise, and so throws everything it can into the mix with the aim of, maybe, tackling it more in a future film. Pretty much every version of modern Arthurian legend is cobbled in the mix, and mashed together in the hope it can work. The TV series Merlin did something similar, but had the advantage of five seasons to tell the story over. Here, a bloated 126 minutes feels too short, and too long at once. Remember when the first Matrix came out and it didn’t try to be a franchise starter? Or how about Pirates of the Caribbean? Die Hard? Lethal Weapon? Yes, all of those led to declining quality of franchise films, but the first films weren’t trying to do anything but be good standalone films. Why does everything these waste screen time setting up events for future films (that inevitably never come)?
Casting choices are nothing to write home about. Jude Law and Djimon Housou are the two strongest names on screen, but both seem to be phoning it in here. Hunnam has so little screen presence in the lead role that he almost creates a vacuum on the screen, sucking all potential from the scenes around him. Aiden Gillen seems to have wandered onto the wrong set, believing he is still in Game of Thrones, but goes with the flow as best as he can (which isn’t very good). Don’t even get me started on David Beckham’s cameo! But it is Hunnam who is definitely the worst piece of casting involved. I simply don’t get the fascination with this ‘actor’! Nothing he has been in has actually convinced me of any ability, and in this film he fails to convince in anything he does.
But it is the direction and editing choices that really cripple the film. Action scenes are fragmented, with dialogue scenes from either before or after the events slotted into them, so we get ‘sword swing’ – chat – ‘sword hits’ – chat – ‘comical pratfall’ – chat. The effect is to actually make you not care about either of the scenes, and you just end up waiting for the film to move on. Ritchie is completely out of his depth with the scale of action and spectacle, and really doesn’t know what to do with it. Whilst he effectively played action out in the Holmes films, he used slowing frame rates and stylised moments to great effect in them. Here, he just lets the CGI do stuff, and tries to put his signature banter alongside it.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a film that, if you missed it on cinema release, you would do yourself a favour if you also miss it on home release. I may be quite forgiving of Ritchie on his other films (I even liked Revolver), but this film is a load of Barry.