Friday, May 12, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword — A cut below

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action and violence, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.12.17

British director Guy Ritchie has spent the last decade putting his breakneck, heavily stylized spin on pop-culture icons, with diminishing results.

His two takes on Sherlock Holmes were mostly fun, thanks to the sassy pairing of Robert Downey Jr. (Holmes) and Jude Law (Watson); the re-boot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ... less so.

The mysterious Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) watches as Arthur (Charlie Hunnam)
contemplates the powerful sword Excalibur, which unleashes ghastly memories every
time he places both hands on its hilt.
Which brings us to this re-imagined Arthur Pendragon, Camelot and Excalibur: pretty much the only elements of traditional Arthurian legend that have survived in this senses-assaulting treatment by Ritchie and co-scripters David Dobkin, Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram. Their medieval adventure kicks off with a reasonably compelling first act, as the saga’s major players are introduced, but soon goes off the rails and ultimately succumbs to wretched excess during the overwrought finale.

This is King Arthur by way of Lord of the Rings: a magic-laden fantasy that ultimately overpowers its puny mortal characters. When opponents can send mountain-size elephants and coliseum-size serpents against each other, it’s impossible to establish an emotional connection with anything or anybody; Ritchie and his fellow scribes don’t exercise enough care to give us reasonable rules or consistency.

It’s all stuff and nonsense ... and, in Ritchie’s hands, hyper-accelerated and very loud stuff and nonsense.

The film opens with an explosive prologue, the malevolent wizard Mordred having lain waste to nearly all of England. Only well-fortified Camelot remains, but 300-foot siege elephants are poised to make short work of its walls. It’s an awesome sequence, orchestrated with breathtaking verisimilitude by visual effects supervisor Nick Davis, and ferociously paced by Ritchie and editor James Herbert.

All seems lost, but wait! The honorable King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) wields the mighty sword Excalibur, which instantaneously turns the tide. (Handy, that.)

Alas, in the aftermath, Uther fails to perceive the perfidy within; his brother Vortigern (Jude Law), secretly coveting the crown, unleashes his own vile magic. (Really, you’d think that Uther would have known that a brother given the name Vortigern couldn’t be anything but evil.)

The king and his wife perish, but not before sending their young son Arthur to safety in a boat: an oft-employed plot point that dates from Moses to Luke Skywalker, by way of Krypton’s Kal-El.

The boy is raised by the kindly young women in a Londinium brothel, wholly unaware of his heritage; he comes of age during the best of Ritchie’s fast-paced, smash-cut montage sequences, given even more pizzazz by Daniel Pemberton’s throbbing orchestral score. No question: Thus far, we can’t help being dazzled by Ritchie’s mesmerizing filmmaking.

The director’s other signature gimmick is the use of eye-blink flashbacks and flash-forwards, to show action being described by a character in the present moment; it’s a clever touch, although one that annoys with overuse.


Vortigern has become king, and — in the manner of all despots — turned Camelot into a city of terror, its downtrodden inhabitants routinely abused by the thuggish Blackleg soldiers who maintain order.

Having grown into adulthood (now played by Charlie Hunnam), Arthur has developed street-fighting prowess under the tutelage of melee master George (Tom Wu). Arthur spends his days protecting the brothel women and conducting low-level acts of resistance against the local Blacklegs. These defiant bits of skullduggery are conducted alongside his best friends: Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Back Lack (Neil Maskell) and the latter’s young son, Blue (Bleu Landau).

Back in Camelot, Vortigern’s uneasy alliance with dark magic is coming unstuck; the long-unseen sword Excalibur, buried to its hilt in stone, has risen from the depths and been exposed to all. Vortigern cannot wield the sword as long as Arthur lives, and so the evil king sends his Blackleg army to scour the land, imprison all young men of likely age, and force each to try removing the weapon from its rocky sheath.

The fabled sword’s mere reappearance, meanwhile, has stirred rumblings throughout England: rumors of the “one true king” who might rescue them all. We thus meet the key figures in a clandestine Resistance: Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), once Uther’s most trusted advisor; Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen, recognized from TV’s Game of Thrones), a long-distance bow-and-arrow marksman; and Rubio (Freddie Fox) and Percival (Craig McGinlay).

Along with their unusual companion: the ethereal, cloaked Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), one of the few “good” sorcerers remaining after the majority have been exterminated by Vortigern.

These Resistance characters are drawn to Arthur and his mates, at which point Ritchie and his co-writers establish their story’s most intriguing plot point: Arthur has no interest — none whatsoever — in his birthright. He rejects it utterly, eschewing Excalibur and wanting only to return to his “normal” life. It’s a solid bit of dramatic conflict, which Hunnam plays with conviction.

Indeed, Hunnam is a credibly scruffy, cheeky, rough-and-tumble Arthur: a young man accustomed to making his own luck, and unwilling to blithely trust his new companions ... and particularly the spooky-looking hooded woman who seems to have a particular bond with animals. Hunnam is far more believable here as Arthur, than as real-life explorer Percy Fawcett, in the recently released Lost City of Z. (Actors must hate it when their films debut simultaneously, and they wind up competing with themselves.)

The elf-eyed, gamine-like Bergès-Frisbey is an arresting presence as the Mage: easily the story’s most intriguing character, next to Arthur himself. She gives off an otherworldly aura that feels appropriately mystical, the actress seeming to inhabit a space that isn’t quite part of the mortal world.

Law, all sneers and scowls, is a sublimely Machiavellian villain, with a calculating grin and predatory gaze. Vortigern runs an impressive emotional gamut: at one moment terrifying, with the intensity of his ferocity; at the next anguishing over the horrible price required of his unholy alliance with dark forces.

Alas, the increasing presence of those magical enhancements overwhelms and eventually smothers the story’s essential human element. The scheming, manipulative Vortigern is far more interesting than what becomes of him in the final act, just as Hunnam’s provocatively conflicted Arthur abruptly vanishes once he morphs into the superhero who wields Excalibur.

The depth of feeling shared by Back Lack and his young son Blue, as events proceed, resonates more than what eventually transpires between Arthur and Vortigern.

Most of the supporting characters remain little more than their names and some snarky dialogue, although Gillen rises above his threadbare material and gives Goosefat Bill plenty of impertinent personality.

The script is particularly shallow with respect to the other female characters; the sudden significance of Maggie (Annabelle Wallis), one of Camelot’s castle maids, comes as a complete surprise. Uther’s wife Igraine (Poppy Delevignge), and Vortigern’s daughter Catia (Millie Brady), are little more than afterthoughts.

Ritchie’s aggressive stylistic tics and twitches eventually become tedious, and he flat-out loses control of the film during its bombastic finale: yet another fantasy undone by its protracted, world-shattering, effects-laden climax. By this point we’ve long forgotten the cheeky impudence that seemed so droll in Ritchie’s first act; it’s a shame to watch a director so carelessly squander such promising storytelling.

This particular sword probably should have remained in its stone.

No comments:

Post a Comment