“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” Movie Review


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     As I’ve talked about many times over the years, there are many accomplished directors whose work is easy to spot.  Essentially, several filmmakers possess a very unique and identifiable style of which they simply filter through whatever story and subject matter they are currently tackling.  British filmmaker Guy Ritchie turned heads with his indie darlings “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) and “Snatch” (2000), as both films featured a shooting and editing style that appeared fresh and gave his work a vibrant edge over what was being produced at the time.  This ultimately resulted in what has been a successful 20 year career behind the camera, hallmarked by 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” and the subsequent 2011 sequel “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”.  But sometimes a filmmaker’s style and template are not a fit with the material, a costly mistake now being realized with Ritchie’s latest film, the $175 million “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”.

     Billed by some within Warner Brothers as “Game of Thrones on steroids”, the Medieval extravaganza stars “Sons of Anarchy” alum Charlie Hunnam in the title role in a retelling of the age old story.  Problem is, creating a muscled up “Game of Thrones” knock off is not exactly projecting what it is audiences crave about the uber popular HBO series.  In hearing that statement and watching “King Arthur”, I’ve come to the conclusion the filmmakers intended on outdoing the action set pieces on “Game of Thrones” with a bigger budget and film studio level resources in the hope that fans of the award winning show would happily consume their story as well, leading to a massive global box office take.  And that line of thinking always surprises me, since anyone who watches “Game of Thrones” will tell you it’s the well developed characters, of whom we both root for and despise, that catapults the show to the heights it currently enjoys.  In “Game of Thrones”, a character death, villain or otherwise, brings forth real emotion to the viewer.  “King Arthur” features plenty of characters who die, and you won’t care about a single one of them, nor will you remember their names.

     Ritchie’s clunky narrative, born from a screenplay written by himself and co-writers Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, tells the origin story of Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), who as a little boy barely escapes the wrath of his uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law), after his father’s kingdom is maliciously overtaken.  The opening sequence is pure modern CGI spectacle as giant elephants carrying an army led by an evil Mage descends on Camelot in an attempt to overthrow the sitting King, Uther (Eric Bana).  Of course while defending the Kingdom, Uther never considers he is about to be betrayed by his younger brother, Vortigern, even as he successfully deploys his magical sword, Excalibur, to stave off the impending threat.  His inability to see his brother’s ambitions leads to his downfall, but his son, Arthur, manages to get away and remains the rightful King of England.

     Ritchie stages a five minute sequence following the opening credits in which we see Arthur grow up within the unfriendly and treacherous confines of a brothel.  It’s an oddly creative portion of the film since it is driven by Daniel Pemberton’s string and percussion heavy music score and contains no dialogue.  Instead, Ritchie and editor James Herbert, present this part of Arthur’s life as a hard edged music video, giving us slow motion glimpses of how he survived on the streets and his dependency on the ability to fist fight as he grows into the man now old enough to obtain his birthright.  Problem is, he doesn't want it.  And even after the classic scene in which he successfully pulls Excalibur from the stone, he is intimidated by the sword’s power and doesn't seem to be up to the responsibilities that come with it.

     As the story moves on, we meet a band of rebels who know of Arthur’s birthright and intend on mentoring him as he begins to realize his destiny.  One of these guys, Bill, is played by Aidan Gillen, who “Game of Thrones” fans know as Littlefinger.  And Gillen plays the role wearing the same Medieval garb and utilizing the same accent he does in the show.  As I watched each and every scene he is in, all I could think about was what Littlefinger’s end game is with Sansa in the upcoming Season 7, with the last thing on my mind being his character’s function in this film.  I think he’s some of kind of archer who has a ax to grind with the King, but who knows?  Also not helping matters is the story’s construction, which utilizes the same technique as the third act of “Ocean’s 11” where we get a bunch of guys in a room discussing how they're gonna do something as their plan unfolds visually on screen.  Ritchie employs this storytelling tactic at least a half dozen times, spoon-feeding  every ounce of the character’s motives to the audience as if we are too dumb to figure it out on our own.  What results is no suspense and a very predictable outcome.  Furthermore, the filmmakers owe a substantial (and I mean substantial) debt to both “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix” for their designs of characters, settings, and fight choreography, as Vortigern in his most evil concoction looks like someone Sauromon might have dispatched to do his dirty work and his battle with Arthur, as well as Arthur’s fight scenes with his minions, have the same “bullet time” appearance as the many battles between Neo and Agent Smith.

     This isn’t to say “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a terrible film, it’s not.  At times, Ritchie’s style works fine, but he and his screenwriters should’ve invested more in the characters and perhaps considered hiring a more established star for the title role while avoiding actors like Gillen who is currently typecast in a better more refined role.  The action set pieces are impressive and contain many of Ritchie’s signature creative touches, but the connective tissue between them is what’s missing.  The final scene clearly indicates plans for a sequel, but considering the financial hit “King Arthur” is going to take, a less costly and more character driven outing may be just what this series needs to continue.  In other words, try being yourself instead of hinging your success on whether or not you can appeal to those who are fans of the best show on television.  GRADE: C-