By Jack Dignan
From magic swords to 100 foot tall elephants to weird three headed (and bodied?) naked female water creatures, Guy Ritchie’s latest truly has it all. It’s a film so rich in mythology that it’s an awful lot to take in in one two hour sitting. Warner Brothers’ latest medieval epic, jumping on board the latest trend of expensive Game of Thrones-type fantasy epics, is one that’s received an absolute hammering at the box office overseas. How it’ll do here in Australia remains to be seen, but with both negative critical and financial success so far, expectations were undoubtedly low going in. And yet, once the film opened with an army of oversized elephants stampeding through a tremendous medieval kingdom, I was sold.
The tale of King Arthur, and all surrounding mythology, is an adventure that’s been around for generations. Whether it’s Merlin, the sword of Excalibur or the Knights of the Round Table, it’d be quite surprising, and somewhat depressing, if you were unfamiliar with anything to do with Arthur’s lore. His tale has become legend, and legends never die. They just get retold over and over with varying degrees of quality. But here we are with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the first of a supposed six film franchise (ha! Good luck with that) recreating Arthur’s timeless life story. There’s no weird old wizards with long grey beards here, folks. There is, however, a bombardment of the strange and unusual, all coming together to make for one of the strangest, most energetic incarnations of the story yet. It’s familiar through and through, but even for those, such as myself, who have seen and read this story dozens of times, there’s a surprising freshness to it.
Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy and Pacific Rim fame takes on the titular character of Arthur. As a young boy, Arthur was stripped of royalty after an attack on his kingdom and the murder of his parents (Eric Bana and Poppy Delevingne), sent away by boat and later raised in a brothel. The kingdom fell into the hands of Arthur’s unworthy and seemingly never aging uncle (was it witchcraft or something because goddamn), Vortigern (Jude Law). Years later, however, Uther Pendragon’s sword rises up from within the lake, revealing itself for the first time since his death all too long ago. Only the offspring of Uther is capable of removing the sword from the stone, destined to take over the kingdom from the wicked Vortigern. And guess what? Arthur’s back, and with the power of Excalibur in his hands, nothing’s stopping him from reclaiming what is rightfully his.
Yeah, okay, so if that brief one paragraph plot description sounds familiar it’s probably because it is. When you’re dealing with a story that’s been told over and over again for longer than any one of us has been alive, the general gist of things is going to feel far from fresh. And it doesn’t. You know the ultimate outcome of this film. The title itself is a spoiler, but it’s a spoiler that’s impossible to hide, and one the filmmakers are able to have a little bit of fun with. Legend of the Sword is a new and exciting interpretation on Arthur’s origin story, crafting a version of the character that’s still got a lot to learn in the ways of the world, and this process goes down in typical Guy Ritchie fashion. Through seemingly endless montages and an overabundance of cutbacks, the upbringings and trainings of Arthur are detailed in full and executed with Ritchie’s famous stylistic approach to filmmaking.
The film is about as fantasy as you can get, exploring so many deep fantasy-based thematics that it’s easy to get lost. Plus, it never helps when Ritchie insists on oh so frequently inserting flashbacks to explain even the most minor of plot elements. It’s overbearing, but credit is due to the film’s attempts at creativity within a property that’s been creatively beaten to death. This creativity, while consistently fun and full of gigantic animals hell-bent on destroying everything in their path (have I mentioned how cool the elephants are?), does, however, lead to some impossible to follow storylines, but not only that, it overfills the movie at hand. Everything becomes needlessly overcomplicated and jam packed with plot. At one point in the film, Arthur is sent on what seems to be a visually dazzling, highly inventive journey of self-discovery with the intention of breaking down the man he once was and molding it into the man he’s destined to be. It’s cool. It should be cool. But it’s skimmed over and intercut with a pre-journey explanation of what’s to go down, marking the five-minute scene irrelevant to the overall plot at hand.
This over-plotting provides even further frustration when its many sub-plots take the centre stage. I honestly can’t tell you why half of this film even happened. Even then, not all of them hit as hard as they should. There’s certain aspects of the plot that revel in their own inherent madness, bringing some of the funniest and most audacious moments to the big screen, but it’s soon followed up with… talking. And more talking. And then a little more talking. Sure, Guy Ritchie is known for his snappy, fast talk approach to dialogue-heavy scenes, and when he shines he shines, but the overall film is far too light on action and heavy on dialogue. Granted, the action sequences aren’t overly exciting, nor easy to watch either, so in return a great deal of the dialogue heavy moments do result in a more entertaining scene. Plus, the actors are allowed to go wild, and everyone involved delivers one hell of a performance, Law in particular.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is no Great Wall, let’s be real here. But then again, nothing this year really is. Lowered expectations may have assisted in my enjoyment of this film, but it’s Guy Ritchie’s stylized approach that really makes it work, if at the same time also becomes this film’s downfall. There’s so much potential locked away in this fantasy-heavy, high-octane haywire of a movie. Occasionally it reaches the surface, occasionally it does not, but the fact remains that never once in King Arthur did I find myself bored, and that, in my eyes, is a very good thing. Plus, did you guys see those 100-foot elephants? Did you?!?
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