Guy Ritchie, USA, 2017, 126 min.
Guy Ritchie’s re-imagining of the King Arthur legend gets a lot more right than it does wrong. In fact, the ratio tips so far towards the positive that this really good film almost becomes excellent.
The film opens with great king Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) defending his castle from the forces of an evil mage. The King’s conniving brother Vortigern (Jude Law) is behind the attack. The assault fails because the King has Excalibur, a magic sword forged by Merlin.
But Vortigern has other plans. With the help of an aquatic demon, it isn’t long before he kills the king and secures the crown for himself. But not before Uther manages to save his young son by putting the boy alone on a canoe and releasing it down-river.
That young boy was Arthur, and he is found by a group of prostitutes who take him in. What follows is a very cool double-montage: Arthur growing up in the brothel and finding his way in the world, intercut with new King Vortigern growing in power and subjugating his lands and peoples.
Arthur the adult (Charlie Hunnam) shows his skills and leadership by pretty much becoming a straight-up ganster. But a good-hearted one who protects the interests of his little community. Quickly, things come to a head and Arthur has to confront his past and the new King who is out to kill him.
Will he rise to the challenge? Or course he will. He’s mother-fucking King Arthur. But the joy is watching how it all unfolds. The story is fresh and new and Guy Ritchie brings a fun modern sensibility to unfolding exposition.
There are several sequences where exposition is intercut with the succeeding set-piece. That makes for some fast and fun storytelling. The Dark Lands sequence is a highlight.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up some of the films faults. The CGI is quite good, but there are points when it becomes overused during the end. And even though the script is a cut above the standard studio actioner, at times it struggles to find its footing when transitioning between plot-points.
Now that that is out of the way I go can go back to writing about the good stuff. There is a cool mage with cool druid magic (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). In fact, all the magic is druidic, which makes thematic sense.
There are martial arts fights! There are gigantic elephants attacking a castle! There are epic sword battles! There are interesting takes on the “Sword in the Stone” and the “Lady of the Lake” mythologies. The film teases you with the power of Excalibur so when finally you see what it can do it’s really awesome.
The good guys are a scrappy band of non-heroes that come together for a greater cause. The cast (Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Craig McGinlay, Tom Wu, Neil Maskellis, Kingsley Ben-Adir.) is great at generating that underdog-excitement.
I don’t want to oversell this film but it does a lot of interesting things with the myth and wraps it up in a fun modern package. You’ll see some snappy writing and direction, great music, dynamite visuals, and tense set-pieces.
Those are all good things but if you are a lover of the King Arthur mythology there is so much more for you to enjoy here. I am, and this film scratched me in all the right places.
AUTHORS NOTE: For comparison purposes, if you want to hear how a re imagining of a much-loved legend can go wrong, listen to Episode 14 of our podcast where we discuss Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood.