King Arthur and all of the ‘Arthurian’ type of films do very little for me, and while I subscribe to the theory of “there is no bad genre, only bad films,” I do admit that I struggle with this particular brand of movie. In fact, the only one that I truly love is Monty Python and the Holy Grail (okay… perhaps Excalibur too), and so my enthusiasm for this new entry was considerably tepid.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a renewed effort to create a blockbuster franchise from the classic story – a feat that failed when Antoine Fuqua teamed up with Clive Owen in 2004. With the global fandom of Game of Thrones reaching dizzy heights, it was no surprise that the producers of King Arthur would seek to capitalise on the audience’s hunger for sword-and-sorcery, but also a precarious wager for them considering the mixed responses to films like Gods of Egypt and Warcraft. To compound the risk, they chose Guy Ritchie to direct, based – presumably – on his approach to the Sherlock Holmes franchise. Given his style as an auteur, this film could have gone either way.
I am pleased to report that Ritchie’s take on the legend works. Far be it from a perfect film, but his unmistakable method of storytelling has invigorated the genre and made King Arthur: Legend of the Sword a likeable, action-packed adventure.
It wouldn’t be right to say that the film strays from its source material, seeing as the Arthurian legend is so vast and open to interpretation that so long as the fundamentals remain (the sword in the stone, Merlin, Lady in the Lake, round table etc) the direction for it to take is limitless. Ritchie chooses to pursue the stronger fantasy-based legend, rather than exploring the historical context (as Fuqua did), and in doing so has created a boundless canvas to work with.
The film opens at the point in which the Britons lose their freedom to the iron-fisted warlock Mordred, who defeats the reigning King Uther (Eric Bana), whereby the king’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law) is crowned to cast a brutal rule over the people. The legend of Uther’s son – the lost king of the Brits – has become common lore amongst the people and when he reveals himself to be a commoner named Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), by extracting the sword Excalibur from the stone, Vortigern’s rule is threatened and he wages war on all who seek to support Arthur’s quest for peace.
It’s a boring synopsis, to be sure, and my aversion to this type of film would normally have me steering well clear of it, but it is a traditional story nevertheless and thanks to Ritchie’s trademark style it turns out to be the most exhilarating Arthur story we’ve ever seen. Would you believe me if I told you that the movie plays out as if Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels were relocated to medieval times? It’s a tough sell but that’s precisely how it goes. Ritchie employs his razor-sharp use of switchback editing, frenetic back-and-forth dialogue and rock music to craft a cheeky urban thriller out of a classic fantasy adventure. His trademark style married with the realms of fantasy should blend as effectively as chocolate and cheese, and yet they taste more like coffee and donuts.
Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy, Pacific Rim) has been cast well, and despite being a familiar face, he steps into the role as though he were a newcomer. He has an “every man” quality about him, and his on-screen presence feels less conceited than a typical A-list player might have been… although I do believe he is the first actor to play Arthur as a hipster! Jude Law is unshakable, as always, and gives a deliciously menacing performance that binds the film and keeps its credibility in check. No matter how absurd things get, Law’s presence – along with Ritchie’s direction – keep the energy alive and remind us that we’re supposed to have fun.
Of course the film has an over-abundance of digital effects, which may test viewer patience, but all of it (at least in my mind) is relevant and carefully conceived. This is a BIG-budget blockbuster after all, with ambitions of being a franchise, and so Ritchie & Co. were looking to present an all- consuming, all-action, bang-for-buck rip-snorter that is as fresh as it is ambitious. They succeeded.
No doubt that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword will be met with mixed reactions, and Lord knows it could be picked apart for criticism, but for this writer it all comes down to the simple fact that it was both captivating and entertaining.