Having gleefully geezerfied Sherlock Homes to unexpectedly thrilling effect, cockney filmmaker Guy Ritchie hopes to pull off a similar trick with this fast-and-loose take on another of England’s legendary heroes. Yet, despite overflowing with the director’s trademark visual brio – there’s enough crash zooms, freeze frames and speed ramping to give you whiplash – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an unrelenting bore, taking all the best bits from the classic tale and burying them in a mound of overblown set-pieces, confusing supernatural elements and one of the worst celebrity cameos of all time.
The opening scenes, at least, are exhilarating. After swiftly establishing a world where humans are waging war with magical beings known as mages, who have the power to possess the world’s animals, we’re dropped right into the heat of battle as a herd of 350-foot elephants storm the last remaining human stronghold, Camelot. Eric Bana’s King Uther Pendragon makes a valiant last stand, beheading treacherous mage Mordred with the help of his magical sword Excalibur – its chief power seemingly to ignore the existence of gravity – to bring peace to the land.
The victory celebrations don’t last long, however, as Pendragon’s evil brother Vertigen (Jude Law) does what evil brothers are wont to do, orchestrating the killing of his brother and sister-in-law, and taking the throne for himself. Fortunately for the movie’s runtime, Pendragon’s only heir, Arthur, escapes death and winds up on the streets of Londinium where he’s taken in by a group of kindly prostitutes. Many years later, a fully grown Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is summoned for his customary encounter with Excalibur, which forces him to go on the run and to team up with a ragtag band of freedom fighters to topple Vertigen’s regime and reclaim his rightful place as King of England.
The movie has its moments where it almost flickers to life. A rapid-fire montage charting Arthur’s rise from penniless brothel urchin to streetwise gang leader is a stunning show of Ritchie’s stylistic panache, while his trademark stunt of having characters recount cheeky escapades amid restless camera movements offers a much-needed injection of energy at times. Yet, the director’s limited bag of tricks can do little to liven up what feels like a relentless trudge through a standard orphan-overthrows-evil-uncle storyline. The plotting is incredibly lazy, trotting out the same old obstacles for Arthur to overcome – he initially rejects his destiny and later suffers a crisis of confidence after an unexpected tragedy. At times it feels like we’re simply treading water, waiting until there’s enough minutes on the clock to justify launching the obligatory CGI bonanza that could’ve been taken from the finale of any of this summer’s blockbusters.
None of that would necessarily be ruinous if the characters were at least interesting company for 120 minutes. Yet the majority of the cast barely register, many of them being bestowed with laughable cockney nicknames like Kung-fu George and Goosefat Bill in place of actual character development. Meanwhile, Hunnam makes a rather risky choice to play Arthur as one of those unbearably bolshy Essex lads who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room because he’s ‘from the streets’. Needless to say, the risk doesn’t pay off. There’s even room for an unspeakably awful cameo from Ritchie’s new pal David Beckham, who somehow fails to convince as a menacing cockney despite being born in Leytonstone. Giving your inexperienced mate a speaking role in a big budget movie is bad enough, but the fact that Becks’ appearance undermines a pivotal moment in Arthur’s story is frankly unforgivable. At least Jude Law appears to be enjoying himself. Having seemingly realised the movie’s not worthy of his talents, he simply takes the opportunity to chow down on every piece of scenery in sight while playing slimy big bad King Vertigen.
Guy Ritchie is hardly known for his narrative dexterity or deep character work, but there’s a minimum expectation that his films will be a relentless ride of incendiary entertainment. Yet even his familiar visual flourishes – whip pans, Tarantino-esque storytelling tricks, macho banter – are beginning to wear thin. You get the feeling that Ritchie knows it, too, as he ramps up the legend’s mystical elements to compensate. Sadly, no amount of slithering sea monsters, trippy psychic possessions, or exotic giant elephants can make up for a creaky and redundant film that’s as unrelentingly dull as King Arthur. The hope was that this movie would launch a six-film franchise to rival Lord of the Rings. Based on this lacklustre effort, you’ll probably get shorter odds on Becks winning a Best Actor Oscar.
Runtime: 126 mins approx.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenwriters: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Joby Harold
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey