Nutshell: Arthurian Legend as heist caper. Ritchie’s take on the legends of Arthur and the gang is more gang and less legend as he fashions his tale for the 21st Century. Strap in for the usual Ritchie dizzying jump cut sequences and fast paced action, and leave any idea of Le Morte d’Arthur at the door. This Arthur has about as much historical significance as A Knight’s Tale or Clash of the Titans, but all the throw-down you’d expect from a Ritchie joint, and the cast is game as hell. Grade: B
“You’re quickly becoming a legend.”
Story: Arthur, a tough that grew up on the streets of Londinium, finds out that he’s actually the son of King Uther Pendragon (may he rest in peace.) Great news, right? WRONG; Arthur’s Uncle Vortimer holds the throne, and will do anything to keep it. Can Arthur, a group of wayward fighters, lone mage that talks to animals, and one groovy sword take over? Um, the film’s called KING Arthur. So…
Genre I’d put it in: Crazy Rides That Have A Passing Nod To Classic Lit
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Very, very loosely based on Arthurian Legend. Very loosely. As if Arthurian Legend lost about 200 pounds and tried to wear the same pants as before.
Gotta say: Ritchie! Hunnam! The color palette from Game of Thrones! This ain’t your English teacher’s Arthur y’all – there’s definite liberties with Mordred, Vortigern, and well, everyone. Think of this as the “Oy! Right?” version of Arthur. And there’s good and bad in that.
For the most part Arthur is a slam-bang action extravaganza, with echoes of genre films scattered throughout. Art direction is equal parts Waterhouse, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, with a healthy dollop of Frank Franzetta. (The “creature” that kills Uther is straight up Franzetta’s Death Dealer.) Denis Schnegg (Ex Machina) blends all these nerd touchstones well, though you’ll definitely notice the tributes when they pop up. I absolutely adored how Schnegg envisioned Arthurian-era London/Londinium, all growing pains as the English strive to build around (and under, and through) crumbling Roman architecture.
As far as FX go, they’re as spectacular as you’d expect from a film that nods to the fantasty genre. Huge, Imperial Walker sized elephants storm the castle. Wood nymphs literally come out of the woodwork. There’s no dragon under the castle, but instead Ritchie takes from later tales and inserts sirens. And they’re totally cool, with a nice blend of danger and intrigue. They’ve got a look that’s reminiscent of Ursula, but with these ladies there’s beauty as well as beast. And this film’s Lady of the Lake is absolutely breathtaking; those underwater shots are sheer perfection, and I can’t help but wonder how long it took to get hair, ribbons, gown, etc. just so. Shout out to costumer Annie Symons (Da Vinci’s Demons) for handling both fantasy and realism so well.
And Ritchie can definitely write some fun dialogue. At the start of a fight scene, a character says “Put your rings back on, honeytits.” The juxtaposition of modern vernacular with Ye Olde Myth breathes life into the story, as Kenneth Branagh’s pacing in his Shakespeare adaptations made these films more relatable to modern audiences. I’m not saying Ritchie is Branagh, but that they both achieve a similar goal in blowing the dust off of their chosen classics. But Ritchie does stumble a bit, where Branagh shines.
In an interview with Good Morning America, Ritchie said “I had a two week existential crisis, where I’m convinced I’ve made the worst mistake in the world. … And then the phoenix of confidence rises out of the ashes. And then gradually you find your momentum the film finds its own way.” Arthur definitely feels like a film that lost its way, and then struggled to find it. Then, roll credits! Perhaps if Ritchie had focused a bit more on the characters, rather than putting in action sequence after action sequence. But in classic lit, Arthur and the Knights are always killing hundreds of men at a time. Hundreds of men apiece. So I guess Ritchie held back?
But dammit, that cast tho’. As Arthur, Hunnam has the fun, in-it-to-win-it vibe Brad Pitt had in Snatch. Jude Law channels The Young Pope as eeeee-vil Vortigern; perhaps Law has found his home in convoluted, messy stories? And Baltimore’s favorite Mayor/Westeros’s head schemer, Aidan Gillen gets to put his white hat on as Goose Fat Bill, a leader of “the resistance” (#ShadesOfStarWars) and a damn fine archer. Tom Wu, Kingsley Gen-Adir, Neil Maskell, Djimon Honsou and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey all bring their A-game, but it’s a shame the lack of character backstory keeps them ciphers. Oh, and keep your eyes peeled for a quick flash of David Beckham, as a “Blackleg” (soldier for Vortigern) commander. While some think his first foray into acting was wooden, I thought he did a fine job as a gruff soldier with a handful of lines to spew.
Does it seem as if I’m waffling with this review? That’s because I am. For as much as I loved the spectacle, and appreciated the cast’s dedication to their characters, there’s a mishmash feel that I just couldn’t shake, one that never transitions to smooth resolution. Perhaps that’s because Ritchie envisions a slew of follow-up films. Or maybe it’s just that Ritchie had a great idea, and didn’t quite know what to do with it. And so reviewing a film that doesn’t really seem like it knows where it’s going, or what it hopes to accomplish? Kinda rough.
3D? Not a necessity here. Splurge on popcorn and [Insert Candy-of-choice Here], as you’ll get more bang for your buck munching during this slambang munchfest than you would seeing a few things leap out at you. There’s so much happening onscreen that 3D needless overkill.
tl;dr? Go see Arthur if you’re up for a little slam-bang in period costuming. But don’t expect more than the slightest passing glance at the legends we all slogged through in school, or anything resembling coherent storytelling, plot, or character development beyond “yay we won the things!” A fun popcorn film that has a fresh, new, but ultimately lightweight spin on Excalibur and all who love that freakin’ sword.
#Protip: Love the sweeping greens and lovely village locations? Me too! What you’re drooling over are Snowdonia and Capel Curig in Wales. Gorgeous, right? RIGHT.