When I think of filmmakers whose careers have had their fair share of ups and downs, one of the first people of think of is director Guy Ritchie. When his first two films LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH were released in the late ’90s/early ’00s, their success cemented him as a promising new voice in the world of cinema. In fact a lot of people believed that he had what it took to become the next Quentin Tarantino. However after the release his two follow-up films (SWEPT AWAY and REVOLVER) became both critical and box office disasters, Ritchie’s reputation as a filmmaker took a massive hit and it almost looked like his career was over before it even truly begun. Luckily he was able to bounce back and reinvent himself as a Hollywood blockbuster director with the help of the Robert Downey Jr. starring SHERLOCK HOMLES films and the underrated spy film THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.. Now Ritchie is back to deliver his latest film KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, which is definitely biggest blockbuster to date.
The film tells the story of Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a young street wise fighter who was raised in a brothel in Londinium after he was found in a small boat when he was a child. With no real memory of where he came from, Arthur grows up to become a man of the streets with the help of his mates (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell). One day after complete misunderstanding, Arthur is captured by a group of Vikings who take him, along with a few other prisoned men, to the castle of Camelot, which is ruled with an iron fist by King Vortigern (Jude Law). Arthur soon finds out that the reason why they were all brought there: the King wants all the prisoned men to try and pull out a mysterious sword that was found in a stone near the castle. When Arthur becomes the only person to remove it, he discovers to the truth about his past: he is the son of Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), the previous King of the Britons who was killed during a coup that was by staged by his brother Vortigern many years prior. Now with his father’s former Knights (Djimon Hounsou, Adian Gillen, Freddie Fox, Craig McGinlay) and an acolyte of Merlin’s named the Marge (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), Arthur accepts his destiny as the true heir of Camelot and decides to take the throne back from his uncle King Vortigern.
I must admit that when I first heard that director Guy Ritchie was going to do a film on the King Arthur legend, I was very curious to how it would turn out. Even though it’s one of those legends that have been adapted into film so many times over the years, each one feels completely different to what has come before (the main ones being Disney animated film THE SWORD IN THE STONE, the Oscar-winning Musical CAMELOT, fantasy themed ones EXCALIBUR and FIRST KNIGHT, Antoine Fuqua’s historical based KING ARTHUR and the classic comedy MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL). Since Guy Ritchie is a very distinct filmmaker with his own trademark style and tone, I knew that he would make this new take on King Arthur his own. However the real question still remained: which side would this one fall on? Well, it saddens me to report that KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD definitely falls into the ‘bad’ category of Ritchie’s filmography. In fact everything you’ve heard about this film is true: it’s an absolute disaster on every level. When I heard people describe the film as SNATCH meets THE LORD OF THE RINGS meets GAME OF THRONES, I honestly thought that it sounded really interesting and fun. While the film does indeed feel like a mash-up of all those three titles put together but unfortunately, the end result feels like a complete dull mess that takes itself way too seriously. I believe one of the main reasons why that is due to co-writer/director Guy Ritchie’s approach to the material.
While I do give Ritchie credit for trying to do something different with his completely radical and insane take of the Arthurian legends for this film, it just simply didn’t work at all. His trademark directing style is all over this film but sadly, it was became too-self indulgent and over-stylised to the point where it felt borderline pretentious at times. If he held back showed a bit of restraint like he did on both the SHERLOCK HOLMES films and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., it probably would have worked. Instead Ritchie’s filmmaking style comes across as both obnoxious and annoying. Even the screenplay itself (which Ritchie co-wrote with Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold) is badly written as well. Sure there are some interesting elements that I thought Ritchie and the writers brought to the script but it’s just so muddled and poorly put together, that these cool ideas feel like a wasted opportunity. Plus the script leave out a lot of the key aspects/players from the King Arthur legends, which I thought was rather disappointing (“Merlin”, “Guinevere”, “Lancelot” and few other characters are nowhere to be seen at all). Also the film probably has some of the most boring and poorly constructed action set pieces I’ve seen in a big Hollywood film in a while. As the film goes along, each one becomes more lifeless and non-sensical than the last. Seriously by the time we get to the climax in the third act, the action so overloaded with shoddy CGI that it pretty much turns the film into a bad video game. Which is a shame since Ritchie usually directs action sequences really well.
Now when comes to the film’s cast, even they weren’t able to save is film from being a stinker. Don’t get me wrong all the actors do the best with what they are given but sadly, their talents were completely wasted with their poorly written roles. While Charlie Hunnam was fine in the lead role of “Arthur” (you can tell that he is enjoying himself), I didn’t find this film’s take on the character all that interesting or engaging. The supporting cast (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Annabelle Wallis etc.) all gave equally okay performances in their roles as well but to be honest, their characters are so underdeveloped that I just didn’t care for any of them. However the only exceptions to that we’re definitely the characters of “Black Lack” and his son “Blue”, (played by Neil Maskell and young Bleu Landau), who were some of the only few characters in the film that I had some kind of emotional investment with. Also the murky cinematography from the usually great John Mathieson made the film look visually ugly and dour. Now despite my absolute dislike of this film, there were a few little aspects of it that I did actually like. Even though I found most of the performances fine if unremarkable at best, the only ones that stood for me were Jude Law and Eric Bana. Law’s turn as the villain “Vortigern” was quite good and he actually made for a pretty effective bad guy. While Bana’s role as “King Uther” is basically an extended cameo, he did bring a lot of gravitas to his role nonetheless. However if there is one thing about the film that I can legitimately say that I absolutely loved, it was the truly amazing score by Daniel Pemberton. There’s no question in my mind that this was the film’s biggest highlight for me. It’s such a unique and original score in every way.
Overall despite some very small aspects that I dug about KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, they still weren’t able to save the film being a complete disaster in my eyes. Again while I do admire the rather risky and bombastic way that Guy Ritchie took when he came to his approach with this story, sadlt the film itself was a truly agonising experience for me from beginning to end. While I’m sure that they’ll be quite a few out there who will still enjoy it regardless of what I think (I know quite a few people who did really enjoy it), it just didn’t work for me at all. For me personally, it’s one of the worst films that I’ve seen so far in 2017.
Review written by Bede Jermyn