Tuesday, May 16, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillan, Mikael Persbrandt, Neil Maskell, Freddie Fox, Greg McGinlay, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Peter Ferdinando, Bleu Landau, Annabelle Wallis, Geoff Bell, Poppy Delevingne, Jacqui Ainsley. (PG-13, 125 mins)

Already a costly flop and the first bomb of the summer, Guy Ritchie's extremely revisionist, $175 million KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is reasonably entertaining if taken strictly--and I do mean strictly--on its own terms. It's an approach not unlike his excellent, steampunkish take on SHERLOCK HOLMES, though not as consistently solid as that or his underrated THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. a couple years back (but it's better than that second SHERLOCK HOLMES movie, which was pretty terrible). Ritchie throws everything but the kitchen sink into his Arthurian world, which is bound to not go over well with purists--indeed, the Three Stooges short SQUAREHEADS OF THE ROUND TABLE might be more faithful to the legend--but it's perfectly acceptable escapism that probably would've done better if released in March or September. John Boorman's EXCALIBUR remains the last word on this subject as far as big screen adaptations go, and I really feel sorry for any corner-cutting junior high and high school students who watch this instead of doing their assigned reading, because giant elephants, snakes, rats, and bats and an Asian martial arts master named "Kung Fu George" are certainly not elements discarded from rough drafts of T.H. White's The Once and Future King or Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

Equal parts early Ritchie crime movies, LORD OF THE RINGS, and GAME OF THRONES, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD has King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) and Queen Igraine (Poppy Delevingne) being killed in a supernatural, Mordred-abetted uprising instigated by Uther's treacherous younger brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Their toddler son Arthur is put on a small boat and sails into the night, where he's found by the denizens of a brothel and raised in the red light district of Londinium, where he grows into adulthood and is played by SONS OF ANARCHY's Charlie Hunnam. Arthur is unaware of his heritage and lives as a disreputable but affable con man and peacekeeper at the brothel, making sure the prostitutes who raised him aren't abused by the clientele. One such abusive customer is sinister Viking warrior Greybeard (Mikael Persbrandt) who's humiliated by Arthur, the future hero unaware that Greybeard and his soldiers are under the protection of King Vortigern. Vortigern has been rounding up age-appropriate young men all over England and having them herded to his castle to attempt to pull Uther's sword Excalibur from the stone so he can find his nephew. Once Arthur's true nature is discovered, Vortigern tries to have him executed, but he's rescued by a band of rebels led by Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Goosefat Bill (GAME OF THRONES' Aidan Gillan), who have enlisted the help of a nameless mage and protegee of Merlin (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) to defeat the tyrannical and despised Vortigern and enable Arthur to assume his rightful place on the throne.

Fast-moving and frequently amusing, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD looks terrific most of the way, with some eye-popping 3-D visuals and the kind of hyperkinetic, flash-forward/flash-back structure that Ritchie used in LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH. He's more or less a big-budget journeyman at this point, but this is the first of Ritchie's hired-gun assignments that actually has significant stretches that, for better or worse depending on whether you're a fan, feel like vintage Ritchie. While mileage may vary as far as one's acceptance of a King Arthur being given snake venom to enhance his vision and perception, or stranded on a de facto Skull Island where he's forced to battle giant snakes and bats to prove his mettle after being trained in combat by the aforementioned Kung Fu George (Tom Wu), the film works as mindless fun most of the way. That is, until Ritchie lets the blurry, quick-cutting shaky-cam take over for the mess of a climactic battle where Arthur finally takes on Vortigern, who's transformed into a demon knight and starts sounding like Dr. Claw from INSPECTOR GADGET. Law is enjoying himself as an appropriately hissable villain, while Hunnam doesn't really have to stretch much outside of his Jax Teller persona, getting to use his natural British accent but faring much better in James Gray's recent THE LOST CITY OF Z. The mage, an obvious reinterpretation of the sorceress Morgan Le Fay (Morgana in EXCALIBUR), functions as a stand-in for the barely-seen Merlin, who here is credited with the forging of Excalibur. Spanish-French actress Berges-Frisbey (ANGELS OF SEX) has an intriguing presence that's reminiscent of a young Isabelle Adjani, while two-time Oscar nominee Hounsou, once again cast in a thankless sidekick role, continues to be arguably the most insufficiently-utilized great actor in Hollywood. The origin story (the Round Table is seen under construction at the end) in what was planned as a six-film series in a Warner Bros. King Arthurverse that's most likely now joined the ranks of THE GOLDEN COMPASS in being whittled down to a series of one, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD will exit theaters very quickly but should play well on streaming and on cable for the next decade or more. It's enjoyable and filled with rousing action, but it can't stop itself from stumbling when it matters most. And as entertaining as it is most of the time, the $175 million price tag does seem a tad excessive.

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