May 12, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Where's a Pepsi when you need one?

Grade: B
Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, and Eric Bana
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 6 min.

Whether or not you enjoy King Arthur: Legend of the Sword hinges on whether or not you embrace director Guy Ritchie’s distinctive, roiling filmmaking style. This isn’t Camelot, or Excalibur, or First Knight, or one of the several Arthurian revivals over the past decade or so, including Antoine Fuqua wretched 2004 update. There isn’t any sight of Guinevere and Lancelot, and only a passing mention of Merlin. It’s a gritty, grimy reimagining of the Arthurian mythos that’s overwrought and even confounding, but never dull or uninteresting.

Arthur is recast as an orphan in a basket, spirited away after the murder of his father, King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), at the hand of Uther’s brother, Vortigern (Jude Law, stealing every scene). Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is raised in a Londinium brothel, a street urchin with a millennial sensibility. Back in Camelot, the sword Excalibur is plunged in a rock and can only be removed by Uther’s heir. So, King Vortigern pulls a Herod and conscripts every young male to give it a pull in order to root out the lone lurking threat to his throne.

Arthur removes the sword from the stone, then he’s saved from beheading by mates with such kitschy names as Wetstick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Backlack (Neil Maskell) and Chinese George (Tom Wu). He’s also recruited by a woke resistance movement that includes the imposing Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), Goosefat Bill the archer (Aidan Gillen of Game of Thrones), and a magical creature called the Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). Together, they put the recalcitrant Arthur through his paces, including a test in the wilderness and using Excalibur's mystical properties to recall how his parents died.

Ritchie unabashedly pilfers a number of narrative inspirations. The Game of Thrones allusions are obvious. There’s some of The Lord of the Rings. There’s Jesus, Moses, and even Batman. And amid all the bloated bombast, hyper-editing, and steel guitar riffs, there are several crosscut dialogue sequences styled straight out of Snatch that mainly left me longing for Ritchie’s cockney gangster fare.

What’s inarguable is that the Arthurian legend needed an alternate approach beyond romance and show tunes, something to shake up its tired conventions. Ritchie does that lock, stock, and two smoking barrels. Audience reaction will determine whether Ritchie and Co. make good on a planned six-film Arthur series, much less one sequel. If Legend of the Sword is all we get, well, I’ve seen much worse.

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