Once upon a time, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) ruled over Camelot. Alas, his brother, the evil sneering Vortigern (Jude Law) teams up with the evil mage Mordred and kills him and his wife. Luckily, Uther’s son, Arthur, escapes after he is rescued by some prostitutes in Londinium (a.k.a. ye olde wolde London).
Arthur grows up (to become Charlie Hunnam) under the charge of these ladies of the night, but his fate is sealed after he is bundled off to Camelot with other men his age to see if any of them are able to pull out a mysterious sword stuck in a mysterious rock. Once Vortigern, who is now king, finds out that Arthur was the nephew he missed out on killing, he sends his men after Arthur in a desperate bid to remain lord of Camelot.
If this all sounds tired and old hat, I’ve got bad news for you: the movie is the most tiresome thing I’ve seen in cinemas for a while. Head Geek Nicholas commented to me that 2004’s King Arthur (starring Clive Owen) was a production that took all the magic out of the myth. Well, director Guy Ritchie tried to put the magic back into one of humanity’s most enduring myths, but he’s gone waaay overboard.
Ritchie has given his usual rough-and-tumble gangster treatment to Arthurian legend, just like he did with his two Sherlock Holmes movies. But unlike Sherlock Holmes, which in large part succeeded due to the casting of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, King Arthur has none of the rascally, “gritty” charm that audiences have come to associate with his earlier work like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000).
The movie was apparently pitched as Snatch meets Lord of the Rings, and it shows, from the very beginning where massive
oliphaunts battle elephants lurch into frame, to the way Arthur’s surroundings go into slow motion the minute he raises Excalibur. At one point, Sauron even appears (I so wish I were joking).
The real problem is that this movie is an unintelligible mishmash of references. It’s the King Arthur myth as Shakespeare’s Hamlet by way of Lord of the Rings and video games in the vein of Final Fantasy. It’s also hard not to make comparisons to Game of Thrones when the back streets of Londinium look more like Flea Bottom and Aidan Gillen is lurking in the shadows. Hell, even the soundtrack sounds like it was cobbled together from the stuff leftover from Sherlock Holmes, with extra-loud battle drums added for good measure. It’s literally all been done before, and Ritchie has done it badly.
The plot is ridden with nonsensical twists and awkward dialogue, most of which is delivered either by grunting or sneering, which makes it extraordinarily hard to make sense of. The story itself shamelessly rips off Hamlet, and when your villain has previously played Hamlet and Henry V on stage, maybe it’s not such a good idea to have him twirl a crown while pretending to be menacing in poorly-lit dungeons.
Speaking of which, Law is really dialling it in here despite some attempts at high-camp with his role. And yet, Vortigern is still the most interesting character here by virtue of giving him a flawed but fully fleshed out backstory. By the end of the movie, the audience knows more about him than they do Arthur.
And Hunnam, oh my god. I really wanted to like his Arthur, but from the very beginning his pimp fur coat, perfectly coiffed hair and neatly trimmed beard were completely out of sorts with his surroundings. As Arthur, Hunnam has an “I can’t be arsed” sort of swagger the entire way through, and while it may work for things like Snatch, it does not work for this character. What sort of pseudo-hipster King Arthur for mainstream millennial audiences is this?
I wish I had more to say about the other members of the cast, but when even fan favourites Gillen and Djimon Hounsou can’t save the day, you know it’s bad. A mysterious mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) who can control animals and nature also features, but thankfully, there are no attempts at making her the tedious love interest in an already wearisome movie.
As a parting shot, I can tell you the biggest reason I don’t buy Hunnam as King Arthur. It’s because the way Arthur has been styled makes Hunnam a dead ringer for Channing Tatum’s ridiculous genetically modified half-wolf, half-human intergalactic soldier in Jupiter Ascending (see our review). That stupid goatee just looks wrong on both of them.
I rest my case.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens in Singapore on Thursday, May 18.