Did Guy Ritchie just out-Snyder Zack Snyder? In a good way?
In this retelling of the fabled British legend of King Arthur, when a tyrant sorcerer rules over England he seeks out the last true heir to the throne by testing everyone of a certain age to pull the magical sword Excalibur from the stone it is embedded in. When a lowly street thug named Arthur does just that, he finds himself on the run from the sorcerer king’s army and in league with a rebellion of knights and mages.
Director Guy Ritchie is known for his British gangster and urban brawler films, starting his career with brutish hits like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and RocknRolla, elevating later to direct the two off-the-handle Sherlock Holmes interpretations among others. He’s probably the last person you would put at the helm of swords and sorcery myths with such weight and significance as the Arthurian legends. But here we are.
That was probably the biggest hang up going into this film. Nobody wants to see the creative genesis of most fantasy fairy tales reduced to “a lad movie”, with people punching each other and calling each other “mate”. While that does happen, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an entertaining and enjoyable movie full of dark fantasy imagery.
This is a reinterpretation of the legends, through Guy Ritchie’s lens, so some will undoubtedly dislike it simply for that. But sometimes legends need a change of style to be reinvigorated, and Ritchie’s fascination with street brawling and urban slums, isn’t a stone’s throw away from what could be Arthur’s origin story.
Execution of the film is like watching Game of Thrones take speed. Guy Ritchie’s editing style is fast and furious, tearing through all of Arthur’s childhood in a montage of lightning speeds, and his frequent use of flashback narrative devices are used for light comedic effect to break up what would be otherwise slow, plodding exposition. The film has good production value, breathing life into some creepy and magical creatures and monsters along the way. No, this isn’t the street brawler film Ritchie always makes, there’s a lot of magic and fantasy here. The film even opens with a sorcerer attacking a castle with massive war elephants!
It is great to see an unapologetic, under-explained sword and sorcery movie again, with some cool set designs, straight-forward storytelling and monsters. The acting is decent enough throughout, nobody steals the show but nobody flounders or looks out of place, although I wish Oscar Nominated Djimon Hounsou had more to do.
It is an origin story through-and-through: our characters are down in the gutter but also on the tip of an iceberg of mythical possibilities.
Perhaps my major issue with it is the handling of the combat. Truly Excalibur is a mighty, legendary weapon and should bestow incredible power to the one able to wield it, but does that mean we need everything to become CGI? There’s one penultimate “epic” battle that has everything in slow-motion and CG, even lead star Charlie Hunnam is enveloped in it, and flashes of The Matrix Reloaded came back to me. It was dazzling on the big screen, but in a couple of years it will look bad and right now I was bored with it. Why can’t we have well choreographed sword fights to be impressed by, with magical power involved?
My earlier Zack Snyder reference isn’t unwarranted either. There’s a load of slow-motion and ultra-high definition photography here, which isn’t a bad thing. This is like old-Snyder, 300 Snyder.
Some people will probably dislike the lack of chivalry, noble knights and fair damsels and wizards with beards, but as a reinterpretation I liked Ritchie’s King Arthur origin story. This sort of well executed swords and sorcery fantasy doesn’t come by often.
We just need to change that burden of a title…
And no doubt he will make a sequel which ruins everything (I’m looking at you, Game of Shadows…)