Mixed Genres Make for Muddled “Arthur”
Made for the superhero generation, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an origin story about an orphan who finds out he has a destiny, gets a magical object that gives him superhuman powers and is internally conflicted about the whole thing. Think Thor by way of Game of Thrones and you have some idea of what’s being attempted here. This is an origin story, a franchise starter, a reimagining of the Arthurian legend with sequels and action figures in mind. All that’s missing from this sword-wielding hero is a cape.
To Ritchie and co-writer Joby Harold’s credit, this approach actually works for a while as the film’s dark tone signals that a more grounded reboot is afoot. This time out, the orphaned Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) and is taken in by a group of kindly prostitutes who raise him a brothel. On his road to adulthood, he becomes a fierce warrior, shrewd businessman and charmer of the first order, content to live a relatively quiet life, greasing the necessary palms so the house where he was raised can remain a viable operation. However, a raid and other circumstances conspire to see Arthur sent away to be conscripted in the army where, before being enlisted, he’s allowed a chance to pull a mysterious sword from a stone, which has recently been revealed. Our hero manages to pull off this feat and before you know it, he’s being recruited to be the leader of a resistance against King Vortigern (Jude Law), an evil ruler who’s morally compromised himself to gain power.
As he did with his two Sherlock Holmes features, Ritchie strips away much of the romance surrounding the legend, giving the story a gritty, dirty feel with its realistic, primitive settings, period costumes and worn, tattered faces. This approach, as well as the director’s trademark kinetic style, in which events are wittily recounted and paired with scenes featuring altered speeds that are cut together rapidly, are part-and-parcel of any Ritchie film. Love it or hate it, there’s no questioning that this technique energizes the story, moving it along briskly and with imagination.
However, as the movie progresses there’s more sorcery than swords at play here and the realistic approach is abandoned for a comic book aesthetic that’s initially intriguing but ultimately wrongheaded. Whenever Arthur grasps Excalibur we are privy to disturbing visions he’s haunted by while the action slows down so that we might see the outlandish acts he’s capable of when he and sword are one. The earth quakes, buildings shake and the Once-and-Future King is able to wipe out 50 – 60 men with one 360-degree turn of the sword and, before you know it, he’s standing amidst the vanquished, his cohorts gazing in amazement. This makes for little tension where hand-to-hand combat is concerned but more damning is the fact that the sudden shift to a comic book tone jars with all that’s come before.
While I was willing to give Ritchie some rope and see what he would go during the movie’s second hour, like other modern action movies it just continues to build, one outlandish elements tripping on the heels of another. Once a snake the size of a semi-tractor trailer appeared on the scene, my patience had worn thin.
This is a shame as Hunnam is very good, as is Law and Astrid Berges-Fribey as a magician that comes to Arthur’s aid, while the production values are top-notch and some of the set pieces are amazing, in particular the opening battle sequence that finds King Uther’s (Eric Bana) castle under siege. There’s plenty good about King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, so much so that you may find yourself seduced enough to overlook its faults. It’s a movie you end up liking more than you should but in the end, Ritchie’s clashing tones make for a muddled look at the legendary ruler.