'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword' - Review - Chris at the Pictures

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword' - Review

★ ★ ½ ☆ 

Chock full of smirk-inducing dialogue and many a fire-wielding enchanter, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword finds it very difficult to avoid the obvious Monty Python jokes. As the opening expository scroll faded, to be replaced by the location marker ‘Camelot’, all I wanted to do was lean across to my neighbour and whisper “It’s only a model!” Far from the usual social anxiety, my reason for resisting was that I had no-one to talk to: in solidarity with the film’s lacklustre US box office performance, the cinema was nearly empty.

Emptiness is a key problem on-screen, too. For all the fusing of Ritchie’s guns ‘n’ geezers formula with indestructible myths, there’s nothing but sparse and superficial thrills to be gained. With so much of our pop culture landscape defined by retellings of Arthurian legend, this return to the original tale feels oddly derivative. Narratively, it’s more akin to Star Wars than any fantasy yarn of old: the wizards have all but died out, and a young man must summon the courage to wield his father’s blue-glowing weapon and face a series of trials and visions before confronting a black-clad enemy who’s bound to him by blood.

Charlie Hunnam portrays an Arthur raised in a brothel on the streets of Londinium, who swans about with his motley crew of characters who owe more to EastEnders’ Queen Vic than Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. Their exaggerated accents are jarring, but at least they’re committed to the ‘Danny Dyer goes LARPing’ aesthetic. Our lead remains resolutely on-brand, emoting purely through shoulder-squaring and the odd grimace.

While Hunnam is humdrum, Jude Law is far from a bore. Embracing the role of Arthur’s evil uncle, Vortigern, and all the leathery bellowing that comes with it, he may not be the most sympathetic presence, but is easily most fun to be around. One scene sees him deliver a threat to one of Arthur’s chums, cutting off their ear when they refuse to comply. Law repeats his deadly promise into the severed ear in a way that should instil stunned fear, but instead caused yours truly to stifle a giggle. Another such joy occurs later when a topless, gimp-masked Vortigern dares Arthur to “Come and touch me”.

The most sympathetic role by far is Ritchie's own blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as a shady dealer who takes one look at the assembled cockney crusaders and delivers the gestural equivalent of “Nah, y’alright, mate”. By this point in the film, we’ve all made a similar assessment. The occasional, unintentional chuckle and a bravura opening sequence (which offers more to fans of the Halo: ODST video game than anyone else) are poor reward for the total lack of self-awareness on display, best demonstrated by the female characters. Arthur’s unnamed mage accomplice (played with eye-popping gusto by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) is only brought up when the plot demands her mystical abilities but is otherwise forgotten because learning to write women isn’t something Ritchie and his cowriters (Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram) have bothered with yet. Similarly wasted is Katie McGrath, who British viewers will recognise from her role as Morgana in the TV series Merlin, killed off before five minutes have passed.

Despite the furious pacing, snap-zoom camerawork and Daniel Pemberton's glorious romp of a score, there’s no urgency to any of it. The constant use of slow-mo and a colour palette that forgets to include anything but orange and grey drains what energy there is until a cameo from David Beckham fails to elicit even the most exasperated smirk. Legend of the Sword’s slim but laudable potential slowly gives way to a drab exercise in indulgence and buffoonery, its foul mouth betraying an empty head.