Movie Review: Snatch Meets Camelot in Cockney ‘King Arthur’
In the opening moments of Guy Ritchie’s brazen new update, the evil wizard Mordred rides Godzilla-sized elephants through the walls of Camelot before being slain by Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), whose sword Excalibur gives him Godlike powers.
These are the most faithful moments to Arthurian legend in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
You might not think that Hollywood filmmakers have a need to invent new stories in the pantheon of Arthurian legends, some of the richest and most oft-told tales in the English-language that date back to over a thousand years.
But even hardened cynics might be surprised by Ritchie’s new film, which transposes the man of myth and legend to an oddly-contemporary London underworld in what might as well be a prequel to the director’s Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.
In comparison, his two Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr. were meticulously faithful adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Ritchie’s King Arthur, played by rising star Charlie Hunnam (coming off the excellent Lost City of Z), is a Londinium pimp, gangster, martial artist, and street thug who is raised by prostitutes after evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) slays his father and assumes the throne, ruling England with an iron fist.
But when the waters surrounding Camelot mysteriously drain to reveal the Sword in the Stone - already a known legend that promises the throne to whomever can pull it out - Vortigern rounds up all men of the appropriate age so he can locate the long-lost Arthur, publicly reveal his identity as the rightful heir to the throne, and then execute him. For some reason.
It’s a foolproof plan.
Of course, Arthur has no interest in assuming the throne; much of the second act of the film involves characters like Goosefat Bill (Aiden Gillan), Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), and a mysterious mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) trying to convince him to rule England rather than just the London underworld with his old gang of Cockney-accented thugs.
Ritchie’s King Arthur is at it’s best when displaying total disregard for Arthurian legend; anachronistic scenes of scowling gangsters are more Long Good Friday than Game of Thrones (another big influence on the proceedings) and deserve points for audacity, if nothing else.
But while Ritchie’s irreverent take and kinetic flair provide some fleeting interest, much of the film is drowned out under the weight of the CGI-infused battle scenes that go on and on and pummel us into submission.
As Arthur wields Excalibur and unlocks God Mode, freezing time to quickly slice and dice his opponents before taking on Vortigern, who has morphed into a Skeletor-like monster by the end of the film, the film has become a rote and uninteresting video game.
The exhaustive CGI action scenes, many rendered entirely in computer and missing Ritchie’s - or anyone’s - visual style, seem to encompass nearly half of the film.
One plus: the bombastic and widely varied original soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton, which also includes a folk ballad by Sam Lee. It’s worth sticking around during the credits just to hear a few excellent tracks.
Otherwise, this new King Arthur is just the latest example of a big-budget Hollywood mishandling of the oft-told legend, about on par with the long-forgotten 2004 version; even Ritchie’s oddball treatment fails to breathe new life into some of the liveliest tales of Western folklore.
Keep an eye out for footballer David Beckham as the member of the king’s guard who watches Hunnam’s Arthur pull the sword from the stone.