Latest spin on Anglophone literature’s icon wisely makes up an unfortunately threadbare human element with ample givings of Guy Ritchie-exclusive machismo, zippiness and off-kilter visuals.
Honestly, had the title been Snatch-ing the Return of the King it would still represent what’s on screen, perhaps a better job at reflecting the signature cheekiness embedded in the director’s famous gangster films. King Arthur is the second time where Ritchie cremates the suave and sublime cells that have been defining the source material’s protagonist and replaces them with brashness and grime. Imagine when a book club morphs into an underground open mic.
The transition, strange as it is, does pay off. Strong echoes to a certain Peter Jackson film aside, who knew a folk song and frenzied direction provide front-line access to the showdown between Camelot’s King Uther (Eric Bana, another round as a monarch) and gargantuan elephants controlled by the once-ally mage Mordred (Rob Knighton)? Come night, the king realizes that traitorous forces resemble more his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law, truly pleased being sinister), rather than the magical community. Arthur, though young, witnesses everything – the moment when he loses his family, his home and right to rule.
As rapid as that uprising is the boy’s evolution from being Londinium’s newest punching bag to semi shot-caller of the town’s bandits (and, momentarily, Brad Pitt at his prime). Ritchie’s knack for flipping through sequences-worthy exposition in minutes reflects Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur well – full of swagger and fire, little tolerance and time for other things. It is definitely the actor’s more convincing turn as a cocksure protagonist than in Pacific Rim. Sometimes, to highlight the fury of “the bastard son of a prostitute” destined to be king, the character’s screams evolves into bestial roars or stretches into composer Daniel Pemberton’s explosive percussion-heavy score. Busier than needed, but effectiveness is noted.
If only the merry band surrounding Arthur had coalesced like those elements. Despite an array of charismatic performers (featuring Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen), the script undermines them with unremarkable characters who are meant to be vital to Arthur’s rise. Assistances and sacrifices are made, but there’s little camaraderie built prior to these acts that get us caring for “Arthur’s friend No. 1” and fewer occasions where Arthur appreciates a helping hand. An issue not so alien to blockbusters of late, but for King Arthur it’s more than a flesh wound, inflicted under the watch of a filmmaker who entered the scene through masterful juggling of numerous characters. Rotten eggs, all, but each has a reason to be loved and a name to memorize. To have minimal romance is fine, even if present is an alluring Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, mystery in spades), as that is rarely Ritchie’s priority, but just a pinch of brotherhood? Anarchy.
Nonetheless, the fleeting (or is there?) character-building means the madcap aesthetics and action are constantly introduced. Provided that editor James Herbert doesn’t get too frantic in managing the quick pans and speed ramping, particularly the Darklands sequence, the imagery from d.o.p. John Mathieson astounds with its adaptability – bringing grit to the fantasy and making “Guy Ritchie’s vision” and “fantastical stuff” shake hands. There’s a noticeable recurrence of slithery imagery in King Arthur; one involves snakes near the end that spells “test footage for live-action Aladdin” in bold. Speaking of test footage, with King Arthur being the first time Ritchie lets CGI dominate the space, the inexperience shows and the film borders video-game territory especially when Excalibur is swinging.
Let’s raise a glass to the next five tales of Arthur and his knights – a gesture of hope for a remedy to this problem and an improvement to the emotions.