There’s the heroic King Arthur of ancient legend, the romantic King Arthur of Chretien de Troyes, Malory, Tennyson and the pre-Raphaelites, and the mid-20th century pop culture King Arthur of The Once and Future King, Camelot and The Sword and the Stone. And now there’s Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur, who is — what else? — a low-class tough in ancient Londinium who, Excalibur in hand and muscled miscreants at his side, battles his way back to his birthright as royal leader. Heavily indebted to Game of Thrones in its R-rated approach to fantastical doings and impressively mounted as such, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword — a thunderous, bloody and bludgeoning spectacle — could well be the Arthur today’s world audience wants.
Loud, bombastic and thuddingly obvious, this is a vulgar movie for vulgar times. Such synchronicity alone makes it worthy of cultural consideration of a certain kind. But it also can’t be denied that Ritchie, who hasn’t been deemed a director of creative interest since his early Lock, Stock… and Snatch days, and certainly least of all for his hugely lucrative Sherlock Holmes entries, does pull off some quick-witted and clever sequences here; he doesn’t want to bore or approach narrative conventionally, so he’s found ways of conveying a good deal of information very quickly, taking an aggressive approach to supplying backstory and never ever slipping into solemnity or sanctimony.
There is not even an ounce of sentiment here, no romance, no Guinevere or Lancelot, nary a thought of “happy-ever-after” or the magical/mystical days of the pre-historic Britain of legend. Like it or not, there’s a view here of olden times that, in placing pre-eminent importance on ruthless brutality and eliminating the more tender emotions altogether, could arguably be called just as valid as the noble sentiments of high-minded knights, such as have been sold to millions of youngsters over the decades and centuries. This is a Britain born of mud and blood, not of gallantry and lofty ideals.
Game of Thrones has its giant flying dragons, while King Arthur features the biggest elephants you’ve ever seen, beasts at least sizable enough to qualify for Warner Bros.’ next Kong outing. The music pounds away as deafeningly as the big tuskers’ feet hit the ground and, without preliminaries, the film plunges into the middle of a monstrously destructive battle that sees the treacherous Vortigern (Jude Law) seize the crown from his older brother Uther (Eric Bana), who spirits his wife and young son away before it’s too late.
Where is the last place you’d expect to see the once and future king grow up? A brothel, perhaps? Well, that’s where Ritchie and his four script and story writers have put him. When first met as a young man played by Charlie Hunnam, Arthur runs with some rough lads and considers himself “the bastard son of a prostitute.” But when every man on the island comes to try his luck at pulling Excalibur out of the stone it’s stuck in, Arthur balkingly goes along and then promptly succeeds in doing so, albeit passing out in the process.
Vortigern reels Arthur in and does him the service of informing him of his true identity just before putting his brother’s head on the block. But the young man has protectors, including a big brown eagle, a weird clairvoyant called The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who helps him envision his past and his father’s own destiny, and his old mates, who include the brawny Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and the brilliant archer Bill, played by none other than Aidan Gillen, otherwise known as Littlefinger from Game of Thrones.
There are imaginative narrative touches, including a nifty speculative flash-forward, and the draining from the story of even the slightest trace of a romantic sensibility becomes fascinating to a degree; can an Englishman really make a film about one of the foundational myths of his storied nation without letting slip even a bit of sentiment for it? Yes he can. From one moment to the next, it’s possible to on some level enjoy the shaking up of tired conventions in a swordplay fantasy such as this and then to be dismayed by the lowbrow vulgarity of what’s ended up onscreen. The film gives with one hand and takes away with the other, which can be frustrating in what’s meant to be entertainment.
Hunnam is game for the rugged demands placed upon him and takes the physical punishment administered to him in stride. Playing the figure of unalloyed evil here, Law gives the malice of this man who would be king full rein, while Bana provides convincing contrast as the betrayed brother. After using visual effects to extensively create huge masses of armies and mayhem, the film suddenly resorts to a herky-jerky video game approach in a climactic stand-off that looks quite lame in contrast to most of the action.
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