The Bock’s Office: ‘King Arthur’ less regal, more rollicking
May 16, 2017
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” rated PG-13
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
Running time: 126 minutes
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou and Jude Law
Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas and Craig’s West Theatre.
Centuries of lore are bound to change over time in the telling of one of the greatest tales of all. Still, even accepting that, some elements of "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" are more than hard to swallow along with your popcorn.
Medieval Britain is beset by confusion and treachery following the death of ruler Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), whose noble leadership has shifted to his cruel and vain brother Vortigern (Jude Law).
The oppressed people have little hope under his rule until the sudden reappearance of Uther's fabled sword, embedded in a rock and seemingly unmovable.
Vortigern knows whoever can take command of the blade will be his downfall, and it isn't long before he can put a face to his anxiety — a young man named Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), Uther's son and the unwitting true heir to the throne who has managed to survive life on the streets.
Arthur has no desire to overthrow his uncle, nor the capability to do so, but forces beyond his control soon demand that he step up and accept his destiny.
Hunnam's grungy charisma is a far cry from most of the Arthurs we've seen over the years, though he makes a fair comparison to Richard Harris, Nigel Terry or Graham Chapman as the quintessential humble orphan bound for greatness, in this case growing up in a brothel and becoming a wheeler-dealer among the commoners out of necessity.
But, there's no keeping those repressed memories and nightmares from making him wonder if there's something more.
Law is exactly as you'd expect portraying a royal usurper, one who's done some terrible things to get to where he is and plans to do much worse to stay that way as he rules by fear, showcasing that those who seek power of such magnitude are more often than not fools and cowards.
When there's a darker influence at play, the dynamic gets all the worse.
Magic abounds, but there's little sign of Merlin apart from a few brief mentions, while other Arthurian mainstays like Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain are also out of the picture in lieu of Arthur's buddies Wetstick and Backlack (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell), two natural names for knights if you've ever heard them, not to mention Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen).
At least Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) is present to preserve somewhat of the canon as the last of the warriors still loyal to Uther and his descendants, willing to forge a cautious alliance with the magic folk who want to see the right person on the throne.
We'll just have to see what becomes of the mysterious nameless mage proxy (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) for Merlin…
The sword and sorcery genre isn't one that has held up well across the years, but that doesn't stop Guy Ritchie from an attempt to revitalize it, somehow managing to hit every archetype while still trying to remain fresh.
England's answer to Quentin Tarantino does all he can to make the story his own, and the anachronisms and fast-paced, witty dialogue that proved successful in his reworking of "Sherlock Holmes" are more glaring here, even though no one's asking for historical accuracy in this look at Camelot.
Vortigern's pact with a band of marauding Vikings should be proof enough of that.
Ritchie also treats Excalibur like the Ark of the Covenant or the One Ring, a weapon of ultimate supremacy rather than the more symbolic understanding that the sword represents divine right to rule. Why hold back when you've already got your hands on the hilt, right?
Still, even with so many willfully dumb additions and adjustments, the classic interpretation of Arthurian myth manages to gleam through the grime and blood, capturing the nature of destiny and the true tenets of leadership. Combine that with an overall sense of fun and some good battle scenes, and you can at least make it through two hours.
The pieces are there in "Legend of the Sword" for something wondrous, and if we need to get this origin story out of the way, then so be it. You may prefer the tellings of TH White, John Boorman or Monty Python, but Ritchie's version is sharp enough to deserve a sequel.
However, if he can't make it better from here, off with his head.