Le Roi Arthur Film Critique Essay

Guy Ritchie is that fun friend whose texts you don’t always return because his energy level is always cranked up to 10, and even when you’re in the mood for him, he still wears you out. His best entertainments are 1990s lad mag confections, chock full of funny, well-dressed, hardboiled men (and a couple of women) who bust each other’s chops when they aren’t joining forces to steal something. They’re the kinds of films you forget exist until you stumble across them and end up watching the whole thing again because the tone is just right—edgy but lighthearted—and never for a moment does the movie pretend that watching it is going to make you a better person. “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” his two Sherlock Holmes films, “Snatch,” the bizarre self-help action film “Revolver” and 2015’s unexpectedly marvelous “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” are assortments of savory treats presented in the most stylish boxes Ritchie can devise.

But there are times when Ritchie makes his own style the star of the film, crowding out the actors and the story because neither is terribly interesting. The result is an oxymoron: a frenetic slog. That’s unfortunately what happens to “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” a knowingly anachronistic riff on the legend starring Charlie Hunnam. This version envisions Arthur as a working-class hero with entirely contemporary sensibilities. He was raised in a brothel after his father and mother were murdered by his uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern is an unworthy King of England and a pampered sadist who owes a supernatural debt to the Lady of the Lake, envisioned here as a mass of CGI tentacles enfolding three women, one plump and the others slender and curvy. 

Ritchie and his cowriters, Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold, aren’t interested in historical fidelity because the historical Arthur was a mystery anyway and they’re mainly having fun here. They take Arthur’s childhood trauma seriously (he keeps re-experiencing it in nightmare form, like Bruce Wayne remembering his own parents’ murder by a mugger) but ultimately treat it mainly as the centerpiece for a standard-issue “hero’s journey,” one that owes quite a bit to the "Star Wars," "The Matrix" and "Lord of the Rings" films. When he pulls the sword from the stone, he, we and the baddies all know that he is truly The One; when he grips it with both hands and then swings, the earth trembles and the camera starts whirling in circles around and around CGI Charlie Hunnam and his adversaries, in the manner of a video game with 3-D graphics.

This Arthur wears what looks like a brown leather bomber jacket, sports a 2016 movie star haircut, calls everybody “mate,” and makes a big show of not wanting to get involved in politics, much less embrace his destiny. That is, until circumstances require him to round up a crew of hyper-competent misfit outsiders and depose the kind heist-movie style, treating every skirmish and siege as if it were another vault that the “Snatch” guys were hoping to empty. The future Knights of the Round Table are just as contemporary. They’re a multicultural crew: this film’s Sir George is nicknamed Kung Fu George, tutors Arthur in martial arts, and is played by Hong Kong-born actor Tom Wu; Sir Bedivere is a Moor played by Beninese movie star Djimon Hounsou. And the Anglo actors’ characters get a dusting of Dickensian chimney soot to enhance their rough-and-ready bona fides. The future Sir William (Aiden Gillen), master of the longbow, goes by Goosefat Bill Wilson.

I love all this stuff in theory—it’s not far from what Martin Scorsese did in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” populating ancient Jerusalem with New Yorkers, Midwesterners and Brits who spoke in their native accents and used modern slang, slicing and dicing the action into music video beats, and scoring the whole thing with Peter Gabriel’s chants and synth beats. The Ritchie sense of style suits a revisionist approach. He’s as slick and easygoing as a rock and roller showman can be, and because the totality of the film is so knowingly absurd—in addition to the slow-motion, acrobatic swordfights, there are gigantic CGI snakes, rats, wolves, and Godzilla-sized Indian elephants—the whole thing feels like a lark even when the characters are being beaten, tortured and executed. There are even moments when Hunnam, not an actor exactly known for his scalawag charm, evokes Errol Flynn’s devil-may-care jerk incarnation of Robin Hood. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s version of Guinevere, a witch whose eyes go black when she summons dark forces, is a fresh variation on the character, though it would’ve been nice if Ritchie had allowed her to crack a few jokes like the boys. 

No, the real problem is that the movie is unmodulated from start to finish. It never lets up in the exact way that a cocaine addict who wants to tell you his life story before closing time never lets up. Michael Bay has often been accused of turning in feature length motion pictures so over-edited that they feel like trailers for themselves, but I don’t think Bay has ever made a movie as frantically, pointlessly, tediously busy as “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Not content to do that time-tested Guy Ritchie story-about-a-story thing in every other scene of the picture—you know, the bit where a character tells an audience, “And then I sez to him,” and the movie cuts to the same character five days earlier saying, “Put down the money, mate!”—the film does it constantly for two hours, dicing dialogue, performances and story points into microscopic narrative particles that disintegrate in the mind.

On one level, you have to admire the skill necessary to tell a story in this manner. You can’t just make a six-hour film and then cut it down to two. You have to think about how every piece, no matter how small or large, will fit with every other piece when the whole narrative is stitched together. But the downside of this strategy is that it doesn’t allow room for any single moment to truly live and breathe, and it’s in such moments that we really get to know a character and care about what happens to them. The emotional heavy lifting that might be done by acting, writing and careful direction is done here in shortcut form by whooshing, tilting, diving camerawork, ominous “whoosh” and “boom” noises on the soundtrack, and other signifiers of awesomeness. 

There’s so much narrative and visual motion, such fast cutting, such loud music, and so many rapid shifts of time and place that on those rare occasions when the movie slows down and lets two characters speak to each other, in relative quiet and at length, it feels as if something’s gone wrong with the projection. Ritchie keeps rushing us along for two hours, as if to make absolutely certain that we never have time to absorb any character or moment, much less revel in the glorious, cheeky ridiculousness of the whole thing. The entire movie is an information delivery device with top-dollar production values, forever mistaking getting to the point for the point itself. It’s the legend of King Arthur as told by an auctioneer. I’m not sold.

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Early on in his career, Guy Ritchie took rough-and-tumble streetwise hoodlums and elevated them to hero status. Now, he does the opposite, taking high-class literary heroes — first Sherlock Holmes and now King Arthur — and plunging them down to gutter level. The idea, one supposes, is to make these lofty cultural icons into relatable underdogs, but the effect is akin to slander. If there ever had been a real Sherlock or Arthur, they would surely be horrified to see themselves depicted as such commonplace thugs.

In Ritchie’s over-the-top, rock-and-roll “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” the less you know about the legend in question, the better. The brash British director has thrown out nearly all preexisting Athurian notions and come up with a smoking new riff on the famous sword-in-the-stone tale that makes “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” look like a work of rigorous historical scholarship by comparison.

It’s epic, in the sense that it features elaborate CG backdrops swarming with thousands of virtual extras, and it’s extravagant, to the extent that Warner Bros. flushed away millions of dollars to produce this gaudy eyesore. But ultimately, “King Arthur” is just a loud, obnoxious parade of flashy set pieces, as one visually busy, belligerent action scene after another marches by, each making less sense than the last, but all intended to overwhelm. That technique has served Richie well before — a sort of slick back-alley magic by which he distracts our attention in one direction, only to pull off something wondrous and surprising in the other, much to the audience’s collective amazement. But in this case, the approach largely backfires, as attempts to dazzle with giant elephants, a scenery-chewing Jude Law, and an occasionally shirtless stud king (played by well-cast, but otherwise squandered “The Lost City of Z” star Charlie Hunnam) leaves us more confused than awestruck.

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Lumped together with a small militia of rebel soldiers, some random Vikings and a mighty French sorceress (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, sexier than Merlin, yet still powerful enough to summon birds and snakes to do her bidding), these elements constitute an entirely new take on the man who wielded Excalibur — one that isn’t remotely coherent, mind you, but intends to serve as a revisionist origin story all the same. Ritchie wants to set up a new King Arthur legend that, were it to catch on, might actually generate a sequel or two down the road (and who’s to say it won’t, when last year’s comparably ill-conceived “The Legend of Tarzan” managed to avert disaster with its still-disappointing $357 million worldwide haul?). And yet, there seems to be no small amount of confusion about the word “legend” at Warner Bros. these days, as their approach to such icons seems to be, “You think you know [insert King Arthur-scale hero here]? Well, think again!”

Ritchie and co-writers Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold (who initially sold the studio on an expansive, multi-film series) seem to have confused King Arthur with Robin Hood, re-imagining England’s chivalrous first knight as some sort of rabble-rousing proto-gangster, backed by a crew of cutthroat forest dwellers (archers, mostly) eager to stand up to the despot king Vortigern (Law), who killed Arthur’s father (Eric Bana) and seized the throne. The script also boasts a bizarre fantasy dimension, as well as peculiar aspects of the Christ story, as the challenge to pull the sword from the stone is treated less like a contest than some sort of deadly trial, forced upon every Brit of a certain age, where the winner — he who can pry Excalibur from its rocky scabbard — will be swiftly executed (much as insecure King Herod massacred countless innocents to thwart the prophecy that a newborn Jew would rise to take his throne).

After playing the straight man to Robert Downey Jr.’s borderline-unhinged Sherlock Holmes in two Ritchie-directed blockbusters, Law seems to relish getting to let loose here, and his villainous Vortigern has all the gristle of a high-camp performance. But Ritchie’s overwrought sense of flamboyance isn’t nearly queer enough to achieve “so bad it’s good” self-parody. Rather, he comes across as an aging rebel worried about being judged un-hip, clearly over-compensating in order to remain one step ahead of fellow stylists Zack Snyder (“300”), Tarsem Singh (“Mirror Mirror”), and Alex Proyas (“Gods of Egypt”) — all of whose genuinely outrageous, inadvertently awful work appears to be a source of inspiration here.

Collectively, these directors have reached a point where their films run the risk of collapsing under the weight of their own production design, especially since Hollywood no longer makes stars big enough to compete with the environments that surround them. (Have you noticed: Even Trump looks tiny when photographed at Mar Lago?)

At least Hunnam has the potential to be the next Brad Pitt, having begun his career in a series of demanding acting roles — including a long run on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” — before making the transition to blockbuster screen idol. He’s got presence, along with a sense of vulnerability that’s essential to the Arthur role, in which he plays a true-blood prince, orphaned by his uncle, raised in a brothel, educated on the streets, and thrust into the unlikely position of saving the kingdom.

But Hunnam’s competing with so much ridiculous window-dressing here. It’s as if Ritchie, who began his career with the rowdy follow-that-shotgun caper “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” has once again tried to build an entire movie around the whereabouts of a rare weapon, when the legend of the sword isn’t nearly as interesting as that of the man who wields it.

Film Review: 'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Los Angeles, May 8, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 126 MIN.

Production: A Warner Bros. Pictures release and presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, of a Weed Road/Safehouse Pictures, Ritchie/Wigram production. Producers: Akiva Goldsman, Joby Harold, Tory Tunnell, Steve Clark-Hall, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram. Executive producers: David Dobkin, Bruce Berman, Steve Mnuchin.

Crew: Director: Guy Ritchie. Screenplay: Joby Harold, Ritchie & Lionel Wigram; story: David Dobkin, Harold. Camera (color, widescreen): John Mathieson. Editor: James Herbert. Music: Daniel Pemberton.

With: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Aidan Gillen, Freddie Fox, Craig McGinlay, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell, Annabelle Wallis.

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