Well, if the Queen didn’t exile the members of Monty Python for their “Holy Grail,” Guy Ritchie has little to worry about with his “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” For now.
True, it bears about as much resemblance to the “Once and Future King” Arthur of Camelot that English myth and various twistings of that myth we’ve seen on the big screen. And for the first half-hour of this gloomy, grim and effects-packed riff on the myth does make one remember how Guy Ritchie rhymes with Alan Smithee — as in, “Jeez, should he have taken his name off this?”
But then the Cockney slang bursts out, the famed backstreet banter Ritchie perfected in “Snatch” and “Rock’n Rolla” and the like — the quick cut flashback “stories” characters hilariously launch into.
“And ‘ow did you get money from a VIKING?” a Blackleg villain, one of the usurper King’s men, bellows.
“I feel a joke coming on,” Arthur, played by Charlie “Sons of Anarchy” Hunnam, quips, in his natural accent.
Reprobates, members of “my crew,” have names like “Chinese George,” “Flatnose Mike,” “Goosefat Bill,” “Wet Stick” and “Back Lack.” Heck, there’s even Ritchie-styled heist packed into the picture, complete with floorplans to prep it with. Were there floorplans in Arthurian Angle-land?
No matter. “King Arthur” is a Guy Ritchie picture, not a Thomas Mallory “Morte de Artur” adaptation. Lots of “Sherlock Holmes” supernatural effects and Chinese martial artists, where Sir Bedivere is played by the classiest African ever to grace a Camelot picture — and the first — Djimon Hounsou.
John Boorman’s “Excalibur” remains the definitive telling of this tale, but “King Arthur” isn’t really “that” tale. This is almost a spoof of anything with “Camelot” in it. It has the actual historical (not legendary) tyrant Vortigen (Jude Law) betray his brother Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), with the boy Arthur fleeing into exile.
In classic Ritchie style, we see the boy grow up, a veritable Artful Dodger on the streets of Londinium, running his “crew,” living in a brothel.
Until that day when the sorcerer-assisted Vortigen decides he must track down this “born king” by testing every young man of the right age against the Sword in the Stone.
You remember that, right Disney cartoon fans?
And that’s where the young man becomes the Young Rebel, and his crew joins assorted holdovers from Uther’s righteous reign (Hounsou, Aidan Gillen) to challenge the fashion plate King and his Men in Black (Blacklegs) Gestapo.
I like the way the wizards become “The Mage,” a hunted subclass of the kingdom, mistresses (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) of the animals, the weather and the land’s tectonic plates. I miss Merlin. But Vortigen consults a beautifully-conceived version of Macbeth’s witches, slithery serpent-women wriggling in one hissing, prophesying and tentacled body.
The color-blind casting is amusing, in light of Britain’s electoral xenophobia.
But in all honesty, the rat-a-tat repartee and tasty touches of Classic pre-Madonna Ritchie don’t excuse a bastardization that takes forever to get on its feet, that lacks the requisite love story (Ritchie and his “boys will be boys” pictures), that presents too much of Angle-land as a burnt-out pit quarry, that revels in anachronisms.
“You’ve got some heat on you, Arthur.”
Indeed. Because none of this is the fault of young Hunnam, with his Hollywood haircut and Saville Row leatherwear. He throws himself into the spirit of this legendary lark.
Law is more than game, and he gives his villain a sense of a man trapped in the fate he sealed for himself. And there’s no match for the regal Hounsou for dressing up ridiculously, playing an absurd-on-its-face character in a loony tune of a movie — see “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Seventh Son” or “Eragon.”
But the whole “Lord of the Rings” (the movies) riff on the Once and Future King stumbles and drags and over-reaches far too often. The screenwriters and the director ignore the warning in their movie’s best line, the equal measures of combat, magic, romance and origin myth sentiment are all out of whack.
“Balance is a law that cannot be transgressed!”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Honsou, Eric Bana, Aiden Gillen
Credits:Directed by Guy Ritchie script by Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:06