Exiled as a boy after the murder of his parents, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up on the streets of Londinium with no idea if he’s the rightful ruler of England. Then, after pulling a mystical sword from a stone, he joins a band of outlaws to take on the king — his evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law).
You can’t really fault the logic of letting Guy Ritchie bring some mayhem to the traditionally chivalrous world of King Arthur. Back in 2009, when Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern- day consulting detective was yet to usher viewers into his Mind Palace, Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes film proved a gleefully incendiary revelation, delivering unexpected thrills (and a $524 million box office hit) by splicing the deductive spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories with the Snatch director’s trademark visual brio and unwavering devotion to shirtless fight scenes.
So, in theory, you wouldn’t bet against Ritchie’s similarly controversial take on Arthurian legend (an urban reimagining-cum-origin story designed to birth a six-film connected cinematic universe) to pull off a similar trick. It doesn’t take too long for those hopes to wither or, rather — given the film’s overblown opening battle scene — be trampled by a 300-foot CGI elephant. Although it flickers to life at times, King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword devolves into a jumbled affair, weighed down by confusing supernatural elements and a lazy reliance on visual effects.
A jumbled affair, weighed down by confusing supernatural elements.
Still, those opening scenes are exhilarating. The giant, marauding pachyderms are part of an extended prologue which serves us some backstory amid scenes of Dark Ages carnage. In ancient England, we’re told, ordinary men are at war with ‘mages’ (mystical beings with the power to control animals). During a key conflict, heroic reigning monarch King Uther (Eric Bana) makes a pivotal intervention with his magical sword, Excalibur, but the victory seems to come at some vague mystical cost — Jude Law’s Vortigern, Uther’s brother, has a suspicious nosebleed, for one thing — and soon treachery comes to Camelot.
Vortigern claims the throne, Uther and his wife are killed and Arthur, their only son, is hidden in a boat before washing up in Londinium. A rapidly cut montage — an irresistible show of Ritchie’s stylistic verve — then depicts Arthur’s hard-knock journey from naive brothel worker to streetwise brawler. After being summoned for his customary encounter with the sword in the stone, Arthur eventually falls in with a mysterious female mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) and a ragtag group of freedom fighters to topple Vortigern’s regime and embrace his heroic destiny.
This middle portion of the film, where it barrels along like a cross between Robin Hood and Ocean’s Eleven, is undoubtedly its highpoint. But it also underscores one of its biggest failings. Even in an unexpected setting, Ritchie’s tropes — East London slang, fist-fights, Tarantino-ish narrative trickery — still feel hopelessly dated. And then there’s David Beckham. Following a brief cameo in Ritchie’s previous film, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Becks effectively puts himself forward as the Ritchieverse’s answer to Stan Lee, with a beefier appearance as a villainous soldier. It’s a misguided, fist-biter of a performance — almost impressive when you consider it features a man who’s actually from Leytonstone playing an unconvincing Cockney — and the fact that this piece of stunt casting overshadows a hugely significant character moment for Arthur bespeaks the film’s pervading ill-judged, shouty feel. Jude Law toils admirably as demonic proto-dictator Vortigern, but Hunnam’s decision to play Arthur as a smirking lunk makes him hard to root for. Ritchie is clearly still adept at marshalling an inventive action set-piece, but all hopes that this is heading anywhere interesting are ultimately dashed.
Ritchie’s geezerfied King Arthur occasionally sparkles before being scuppered by generic effects, conflicting ideas and an embarrassing celebrity cameo for the ages.