Stealing elements from Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, this latest spin on the King Arthur legend is a fairly impressive spectacle that somehow still fails to fascinate. 2 out of 5.
Even while sticking to core aspects of the Excalibur myth, and only in obligatory reference, the legend of King Arthur undergoes a substantial rewrite in an attempt to reboot the centuries-old tale into a modern would-be Hollywood franchise. Here, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is the orphaned son of a murdered king. He’s raised in a brothel and on the streets from a very young age, growing quickly from boy to man through a fast montage driven by combat and sword training. With no memory of his roots, Arthur does not know who he really is. His uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), who orchestrated the coup years ago, now rules over England. Enter Excalibur, the sword in the stone. Vortigern uses it to lure the real Arthur out from the shadows, if he still exists, in the hopes of slaying him once he’s revealed. But after Arthur unsheathes Excalibur from the rock, this reluctant hero rises to embrace his destiny.
Many parts of this bombastic blockbuster are rather stunning. Director Guy Ritchie joins Michael Bay as a quintessential “style over substance” filmmaker, employing fast cuts, shaky cameras, and slow-motion speed ramps – all to excess. Never lacking for energy, this testosterone fueled mix of myth, magic, and medieval warfare successfully triggers our primal, barbaric impulses for pure entertainment value. The effects are well-rendered, particularly mammoth elephant beasts and other gigantic creatures (snakes, to name one), making for an effectively grittier version of what Peter Jackson mastered in his Hobbit movies. The cast also plows full bore into this movie’s breach, as their enthusiasm helps compensate for how thinly-drawn these stock characters are. Ritchie, too, aims for something higher than what aforementioned Transformers guru Bay often settles for, but he can’t seem to save his story from being buried by all the digital bells and whistles.
The sum of its parts never adds up to anything compelling and, after a thrilling prologue, the story itself is a bit hard to follow. Boredom is never an issue as King Arthur zips along at breakneck speed, but that pace also makes it difficult to understand the heavy cockney accents, handicapping scenes meant to unpack important exposition and backstory. Whatever mythos is being built here, the movie barely allows us to keep up, process, or understand it all, let alone care about anyone in it. More easily grasped are blatant ripoffs of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. This is a hodgepodge mash-up that goes for Lord of the Rings grandeur, Game of Thrones intrigue, a rock-and-roll Braveheart swagger, and the epic scope of all three, but the result is unoriginal, shameful audience pandering. There’s even an evil creature that looks like Sauron crossed with a giant orc, and Excalibur works like the One Ring to psychically connect Arthur to this malevolent force (which lives in a dark tower, no less). The crass carbon copying borders on copyright infringement. The magic here is exclusively dark, too, even when used for and by the good guys, creating an oppressive undercurrent. There’s a mysterious sorceress named Mage who comes to Arthur’s aid but she’s also a narrative crutch, pulling him out of impossible fixes all too conveniently. The multi-cultural casting of the (future) knights of the roundtable is a nice nod to a diverse global audience, but it’s also a typical element of how forced and calculated this Hollywood production feels.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
This is an action flick without much on its mind or in its soul. Outside of rudimentary genre-driven values of bravery, honor, sacrifice, etc., it’d be a stretch to classify any themes here as “Christian.” More likely, devoted Christians would be bothered by the dark magic and sorcery than they would be inspired by any virtues.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content, and brief strong language
- Language/Profanity: Two uses of the F-word; one spoken, one silently mouthed. Three uses of the A-word, one B-word, and crude terms for urine. A woman is referred to as a whore.
- Sexuality/Nudity: No sexuality. There are naked mermaids that emerge from a hive of tentacles emanating from an evil water creature, but hair veils their breasts.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Intense physical violence throughout, from mass scale battle scenes to specific fight sequences involving weapons, wounds, and killings. Scenes where people are stabbed and killed. Arrows pierce bodies. Throat slashings are insinuated off-screen but not seen. While much of the violence is brutal its actual depiction is mostly bloodless, and doesn’t gratuitously focus on gore. There’s a good deal of dark magic and sorcery in the film, and portrayed in dark, disturbing fashion. A dead body is seen hanging. A snake is magically transformed into gigantic size, acting violent to scary effect. Other normal-sized snakes attack and bite.
Drugs/Alcohol: Some drinking of beer.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Anyone who has a medieval itch they seriously need to scratch. Beyond that, mileage will vary.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: People who aren’t fans of Dark Age mythologies, high-octane action movies, or of seeing classic legends revamped with scraps pulled from contemporary pop culture hits.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie, opens in theaters May 12, 2017. It runs 126 minutes and stars Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Aidan Gillen, Freddie Fox, Craig McGinlay, Tom Wu and Annabelle Wallis. Watch the trailer for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword here.
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at icantunseethatmovie.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO’s Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show’s online “Greenie Awards.”
Publication date: May 11, 2017
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