By Preston Wilder
King Arfur? Diamond geezer, knew him back in the ol’ days, down in Sarf Londinium. That were before he were king, of course – just a spiv an’ a chancer, doin’ a bit of this and a bit of that. Trained with Chinese George, didn’t he, bloke what teaches fightin’. Yeah, an Asian martial-arts instructor in mediaeval London. You got a problem wiv that?
Easy to reduce Guy Ritchie’s take on Arthurian legend to ‘Arthur the Wide Boy’ – but in fact the Lock Stock-isms are intermittent, breaking up the more multiplex-friendly (i.e. more generic) origin story of an ordinary boy who discovers that he’s special, pulling the sword from the stone at the behest of David Beckham, no less. (“Where d’you want me?” asks our hero, unsure of the sword-pulling protocol. “Bouncin’ on my knee, where d’you fink I want you?” replies Beckham, in an awkward cameo as a captain of the guards.) The extraction of the sword is an earth-shaking moment, its tremors felt as far away as the palace where Arthur’s evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) frowns in recognition of the fact that his nephew must be alive after all, having escaped the family massacre we saw in the prologue. Vortigern is Voldemort and Arthur is Harry, the Boy Who Lived.
Guy Ritchie has no time for this guff, and who can blame him – but King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, broken up with irrelevant comic asides like a five-minute scene where an interrogating cop wants to know if ‘Mike’ refers to Kosher Mike or Flat-nose Mike, shows a filmmaker who’s about to explode, trapped in a system he no longer cares about (if indeed he ever did). The bits where Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) talks like a London gangster are the least of it. The most telling parts of this overstuffed, finally exhausting film are the opening battle scene, with its frenzied editing, the ingeniously rapid montage summarising Arthur’s childhood in about five minutes, and the many bits where a character predicts what’s going to happen and we see his prediction, in the style of Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies.
All those parts have something in common – a disdain for traditional set-up and a wilful flirtation with anti-climax, trusting the audience to (a) keep up with what Ritchie is doing, and (b) not care about what they’re missing. The opening battle almost belongs in an experimental movie, plunging us in a medias-res situation – we don’t even know who’s fighting whom – where sensation is everything. There are elephants (!), scores of cheering soldiers, Celtic music on the soundtrack; it feels like a climax, yet we haven’t even got to the opening credits. There’s a cynical note here, as if Ritchie’s saying ‘What’s the point of setting this up, it’s all rubbish anyway’. The prediction scenes, as when Arthur explains why a meeting with the nobles would be fruitless, are in a way even more cynical, trading in a self-conscious irony (Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had this too) where a character takes control of the narrative – like a director, or a bored viewer with a fast-forward button – and pre-empts what’s going to happen.
King Arthur feels mixed-up and ultimately hollow, though it’s also creative. Ritchie’s creativity has a hint of desperation, as if he’s forever trying to find new ways to goose up tired material – at one point, after a battle, the soundtrack recedes to emphasise Arthur breathing hard from his exertions, and it feels very much like a script note: ‘All we hear is the sound of Arthur’s heavy breathing’ – but better this than not trying anything. The actual plot is formulaic. Arthur can’t become King till he comes to terms with his parents’ murder and confronts the past head-on. He must learn to “accept this sword”, leading a popular rebellion against the tyrant. When in doubt, the film goes for the CGI option: Vortigern has magical powers (activated by killing innocent women, a rather icky touch), a giant snake features in the climax and there’s also a Mage, i.e. wizard, played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey – who always makes me giggle inappropriately, not because of her acting (she’s very good) but because her posh-sounding name ends in the word ‘frisbee’.
Irrelevant? I suppose so – but silly humour is important in this kind of film, and indeed Guy Ritchie may be right: we’ve had so many of these grandiose would-be blockbusters that the only solution now is to tweak them, breaking up the formula with the occasional piss-take. That said, there are better ways: John Boorman embraced the grandiosity in Excalibur (1981) to create an intoxicating, over-the-top oddity – but you can’t really do that in today’s Hollywood, so populating your movie with future Knights of the Round Table called ‘Mischief John’ and ‘Goosefat Bill’ will have to do. This is not a successful film, but it gets points for trying – though Ritchie’s big-studio bosses, who want King Arthur turned into a franchise with lots of lovely sequels, may be more inclined to talk about him in the style of Lock, Stock: “We can say he’s good.” “He’s better than good, he’s a f**kin’ liability!”
DIRECTED BY Guy Ritchie
STARRING Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Jude Law
US 2017 126 mins