A distended and stuffed epic, Guy Ritchie's take on the legend makes for a one knight stand
It makes perfect sense for Warner Bros. to toss their would-be franchise-launching take on Arthurian mythology to Guy Ritchie, whose work on the two Sherlock Holmes movies bagged a Golden Globe and a billion dollars at the global box office.
Just why that series works as a fun and brainless summer blockbuster while Arthur falls on his own sword? Elementary mistakes, of course, fuelled by a complete and utter tonal mismanagement of just what we’re supposed to be watching here.
By the time the first trailer for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword arrived, the first whiffs of this summer’s biggest turkey were already in the air. A bloated CGI mess, with the kind of paint-by-numbers aesthetic of all of the studios’ latest action offerings (dark colours, incomprehensible action, few jokes, and fewer women), a disastrous opening weekend in more than 50 global territories has this set to make a loss of $150m.
Arriving on our shores this week, King Arthur will find few critics rallying local audiences to save it from total and utter cultural oblivion. It’s the worst kind of failure - so earnestly un-self-aware and thirsty for (a reported five) sequels that it doesn’t even have the sensibility to be camp or silly, despite the mockney mumblings of Arthur’s buddies in Londinium.
A pre-credits prologue sets things off on a rather humourless footing, as leftover pixels from The Hobbit in the form of giant elephants attack Camelot. The once peaceful kingdom is now the site of a battle between the knights of Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), Arthur’s father, and the Mages, magic-wielding eye-liner models whose powers change from animal husbandry to miniature Hiroshima payloads as the plot requires.
Uther – and any semblance of a movie interested in its female characters – is betrayed by his power-hungry younger brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), the slain king watching while his toddler son escapes down the Thames. This mosaic move marks a massive turning point, as King Arthur kick starts into something immediately more Ritchie, squeezing half an hour of the hero’s childhood into a breathless and wordless montage.
Watching the boy prince grows into Charlie Hunnam man is arguably the most fun in the film, a zippy series of vignettes outlining how an orphan goes from hard-knock living to street-smart wise guy-ing. By the end, we’ve a fully established Arthur, loveable rogue with a heart of gold, dressed in Amish pyjamas, sporting Alt-Right haircuts and ably supported by ragtag friends Wet Stick, Back Lack and Chinese George.
Forced, like all other men his age, to pull the sword from the stone, Arthur uncovers his mysterious past, that revelation sending the film straight back to its by-the-numbers fantasy nonsense.
Rescued by Sir Bedivere the Wise (Djimon Hounsou), Arthur finds himself now living a Robin Hood-esque woodland life, reluctantly leading a guerrilla campaign against his uncle while shirking the destiny he will inevitably accept. Forcing him to do that is the nameless sorceress (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), who cajoles him into a vision quest dominated by CGI vermin so bad they give The Princess Bride’s R.O.U.S. a run for their money.
This is bloated nonsense, overstuffed with characters and special-effects-heavy set pieces that are as unnecessary as they are uninspired. The charmless cast works their way over one-liners that pull their punches, while even Jude Law can’t find the energy to ham it up.
Between giant snakes, Ursuline sea monsters and a cameo so ill-conceived it undermines one of the most pivotal scenes in the entire film, King Arthur sinks to the bottom of the pond. Here’s hoping the Lady of the Lake leaves it there.
Verdict: Instantly forgettable, this franchise fodder dithers in the face of its own spectacle. The only round table it deserves is the inevitable bad movie podcasts that will tear it apart for years to come.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (12A/126mins) is released nationwide on May 17th.