The American reviews for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword came out last week. I try to aviod such things but the negative buzz was pretty overwhelming. ‘It can’t be that bad,’ I thought, ‘it’s a Guy Ritchie film. I like Guy Ritchie films.’ I even liked that second Sherlock Holmes flick, you know, it has Noomi Rapace and Jared Harris showing up and topping everyone else’s game. It’s the one with Moriarty and the problematic depiction of Romani culture (so a Guy Ritchie film then) and the Reichenbach falls. Anyone? Anyone at all? Sure he makes films about bad angry straight white guys, but we all deserve out indulgences sometimes.
I wonder if he was into heraldry as a child. I wonder if he’d sneak off into the school library and read the picture books with dragons in them. Perhaps he got caught up at Dickens and never went further, it’d explain why his films all tend to be led by some comedy amalgamation of the grown Copperfield, Twist and Pip. It’d also explain why he was halfway through writing a Robin Hood movie before someone had to explain to him that he was supposed to write a King Arthur one.
It’s trying to be an origin story, the true king of the land is cast out of the palace by his tyrannical and evil uncle forced to grow up on the streets and in the brothels of Londinium; a seemingly Mediterranean city so cosmopolitan it contains the ruins of both the Colloseum and the Parthenon. All the women in this film are prostitutes or daughters by the way, that’s just Ritchie doing his own thing, unconstrained by more temperate voices. Eventually a stone is uncovered and it is said that only the one true king can pull the sword from it. The stone is guarded by David Beckham. Yes, David Beckham, that David Beckham, footballer David Beckham, wearing a fake nose and barking his lines David Beckham.
Like Beckham in his illustrious role, the film completely mishandles its material. Richie’s script doesn’t seem to be as interested in Arthurian legend as it is in just the concept of mythology. I’m loathe to say the joint even has a story, it’s more a collection of scenes robbed from other stories with complete neglect for their historical or cultural value. The film starts out with a whole Moses thing. Later on we see a trial of Christ. Then we get Robin Hood, replete with disguises and arrow antics. Does Arthur need to go on a vaguely Native American inspired ‘vision quest’, why not? And all this wrapped in a package that feels like someone tortured his art directors until they got as close to Game of Thrones as possible without being legally infringing.
It’s agonising, because Ritchie does one thing really well as a filmmaker. Like, he’s good at other things, but he is legit one of the best at utilising atemporality to blur the lines between the film’s reality and the character’s fictions. You wanna examine Arthur, it would be the way to go, there’s even that talk of Arthur, the sword, being a greater symbol than the living man. You got all this junk about the right to rule, the place of destiny and birthright in the world and the competing notions of class, and how it is wielded by those with power. Guy seems the perfect dude to explore these themes, but when it comes to it, he ain’t coming correct.
The instincts that serve him so well when exploring the opposing sides of mystery plot, whether in Victorian London, or 1963 smooth Americana fuck this sword and sorcery epic right up. I’d hasten to say his characters are too smart, but they’re so regularly idiot dopes because their colossal boneheadedness is the only way Richie find to drop them into action scenes. NO, they’re not smart, they’re just all wiseguys. Tristan, wise. Percival, wise. Bedevere (Djimon Hounsou, who stands alongside the lovely Neil Maskell as the film’s closest thing to a human,) real fucking wise.
Charlie Hunnam, who managed to actually be compelling earlier this year in The Lost City of Z, flounders in the boots of a guy so wise even Statham couldn’t have played him without straining believability. Poor Jude Law, while he plays evil real good, looks like he has fear in his eyes most of the time because of the film’s reckless care for character motivation, which is to say nobody gets any. Oh, and Aidan Gillen turns up, because he’s Littlefinger right, Game of Thrones right guys?
Oh, and the group action scenes can’t be shot for shit. Neither especially are the individual ones, Arthur seems to have inherited Holmes’ ability to slow down time in order to better slaughter folks, but because it’s gotta be all magical it’s accompanied by the worst screen obstructing glowing effects and the movements of a camera that wants to get everything in one take but is too dedicated to its individual compositions to have any notion of fluidity. Maybe I was too harsh on Assassin’s Creed earlier this year. Sure, it was disgustingly worthy, its action scenes, especially the chase ones were at least serviceably constructed. A chase here through the Londinium back alleys is so frustratingly incompetent, it’s the one from the trailer with the body cams and the unstabilised helicopter shot. No, no, no.
At least that’s not as bad as the vision trip, which is composed and inserted into this plot in a way that defies comprehension, like someone decided to put a bollocks music video right in the middle of their film. Like, a move so useless and self-indulgent that everyone in the same building as the production should have screamed in protest. And it leads to a revelation so fucking obvious that you wonder if this joint weren’t the result of some Suicide Squad type screwing. Like the point where a giant snake rolls on into a castle, and that’s our reality now, that’s it, giant snake, no explanation. Just like the rest of the goddamn joint.
Returning to Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack I find I quite like it. Its percussive rush and scratchy strings tickle the parts of me that are like sparks. Maybe I just dislike it in the context of the movie. The main theme is solid, but when it’s leading into that damn title sequence it’s just irritating and needling.
I guessing by the way this film pokes and teases around Merlin, a series of the worst, worst round table jokes as the end, that someone somewhere thought it’d turn into a franchise.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is currently screening in UK cinemas.