Hollywood sure enjoys their big gritty remakes these days, don’t they? From Power Rangers to The Legend of Tarzan, there have been countless re-imaginings on older films that have not made a very successful transition into the more serious style of filmmaking. Both of those aforementioned films also received fairly mixed-to-negative reviews as well as underperforming at the box office. This one, however, is somewhat different in its general approach… but does it work?
Guy Ritchie’s take on the story of King Arthur is mostly an origin story. It concerns the tale of Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who is killed by his turncoat brother Vortigern (Jude Law) following a siege by a corrupt sorceror due to his jealousy and desire for his throne as the king of Camelot. Before passing on though, Uther does manage to get his wife and child on a boat so they can escape. Unfortunately, his wife is still killed but the boy makes it to a place known as Londinium where he is raised by prostitutes, given the name Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) and eventually becomes a skilled fighter. As Vortigern takes over as the king, Arthur must realize his family legacy and return to Camelot to face his deadly uncle.
That is summing it up as succintly as possible because there is a LOT of stuff going on in this movie and at times, it is hard to keep track of while maintaining consciousness. Let’s start with the biggest issue in this film (and I can’t believe I’m even saying this) but it’s Guy Ritchie’s directing. Look, I love Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Sherlock Holmes and even The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to a slightly lesser extent but this is one of the biggest glaring examples of a movie’s subject being the absolute worst fit for the assigned director. Ritchie uses the same filmmaking style that’s made him famous: slow-motion with sweeping shots and close-ups of people running with the background moving faster at the same time. That stuff is used incredibly in his other work but here it feels really out of tune with the film. While I am not advocating for a filmmaker to entirely drop what makes them stand out when they take on a big-budget film like this, I am still surprised that Ritchie did not at least adjust his style in any small way. Even in Sherlock Holmes, he made adjustments to make it work in a more meaningful way.
Ritchie also had a hand in co-writing the screenplay, which isn’t very good either. Most scenes are very Snatch-esque with long dialogue scenes detailing encounters we either haven’t seen at all or haven’t seen yet while oddly-placed flashbacks are shown with characters confusingly spouting dialogue in one scene with it clearly taking place in a different one. If that sounds confusing, count your lucky stars that you didn’t have to watch it. The dialogue itself is mostly lame and the characters are not very interesting. There seem to be some anachronisms too with the timeline. For a movie that takes place in medieval times there is a lot of very modern-sounding wording that just doesn’t fit in at all. In a film like A Knight’s Tale that might work but the movie doesn’t set up anything goofy like that in its premise.
Arthur is fine as a character and we follow him around because he’s the title character but we don’t get much more than “he wants to kill Vortigern because he killed his dad because he was jealous and he’s evil.” They try for a few emotional nuances with Vortigern killing a few people close to him in order to gain more power but crying out as he commits the act but those scenes just come off as hokey rather than powerful or anything. Arthur’s recruits are also way too thin and threadbare to care about either but we’ll get to that in the next section.
The acting is nothing short of average. Many people rave about Charlie Hunnam’s performance in the show Sons of Anarchy which I have not seen before. I am sure he is probably quite good and he certainly isn’t bad in this movie as he has some charm and presence but that’s about it. I never really got the feeling that he was a fully-formed character with emotions that I should care about nor did I care what happened to him or any of his associates. For God sakes, they have the character go from a child to a grown man in about 90 seconds within the trope of a montage. This is a film in which you want to see his childhood to understand his later behaviour and they give you none of that. Djimon Hounsou shows up to collect a paycheck and nothing more. Eric Bana is barely on-screen long enough for anyone to notice. Jude Law is the villain and while this would normally be casting that I would revel in, Law does nothing notable here to make him stand out. He underplays the role completely in a situation that probably would have been better with at least a bit of scenery-chewing. No one else really sticks out in any meaningful way.
There is a ton of CGI in play during the film which quite obviously is necessary when you have an epic like this one. However, even with this being said, the film does tend to overuse the effects. For instance, there is a scene during the climax of the film in which Arthur is aided by a large animal and it is supposed to be incredible and exciting when it really just made me laugh at the absurdity of it all.
A huge disappointment based on Guy Ritchie’s track record and I would guess that it will be a long time before we see another movie based on this tale.
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)