King Arthur review: Guy Ritchie puts his usual spin on an Arthurian legend that lacks real magic
Though the costumes, actors and story lines change, Guy Ritchie has been making the same film over and over for years. His approach seemed fresh enough in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, his cocky 1998 caper about a couple of fools who steal from the wrong London criminal. The pace was fast, the dialogue salty and copious, the action driven by beady-eyed wide boys with enough street smarts to keep one step ahead of disaster. And while Ritchie's debt to Quentin Tarantino was obvious, he also seemed to be reaching for the cockney charm of the 1980s TV show Minder.
It worked, in a way, and Ritchie had a bigger hit with Snatch, another crime caper featuring that bizarre portrayal of an 'Irish traveller' by Brad Pitt. Then came the unspeakable Swept Away, which can perhaps be put down to the snow blindness Ritchie experienced during his marriage to Madonna. But even after Guy returned to form somewhat with the likes of RocknRolla and the Sherlock Holmes films, his technique and pacing were drearily familiar.
The central character was always a fast-talking smart ass who knew a little bit more than those around him and had the annoying tendency to spell out different scenarios for an impending violent event.
His films are clever, but lack substance of any kind, and are forced to live on their wits like some lean and hungry city-dwelling rodent.
The smart-arse in Legend of the Sword is Arthur Pendragon (Charlie Hunnam), legitimate heir to the English throne who grows up in obscure poverty thanks to the machinations of his evil uncle. When Arthur was a little boy, his noble father Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) was betrayed and killed by his ambitious brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), leaving the devastated boy to float Moses-like down the Thames towards London. There he's raised in a jolly whorehouse by charming geezers and surprisingly healthy-looking medieval prostitutes, and grows up angry, resourceful, and keen.
He has no idea who he is, however, until he's rounded up by King Vortigern's troops and brought to the royal palace.
The enchanted sword Excalibur was embedded in a giant rock during Uther and Vortigern's battle, and can only be retrieved by the kingdom's rightful heir. Vortigern has been searching for the little brat for years, and when Arthur turns up, shrugs his shoulders and shocks himself and everyone else by pulling the sword from the rock, he's arrested. The king decides to execute him, but Arthur is rescued and reluctantly joins an underground rebellion.
Proper actors like Aidan Gillen and Neil Maskell beef up the cast, and who better to play a disgruntled knight than David Beckham? Much has been made of the footballer's cameo - and he's not that bad!
The Arthurian tales are perhaps the most cherished of English legends, and have been lovingly retold by everyone from TH White to Alfred Lord Tennyson. You'll find no poetry in this production, however, as Ritchie resorts to his usual bluff irreverence.
The geezers in this film don't sound remotely medieval, and pepper their conversation with four-letter words. They might as well be storming the Hackney Empire as Camelot, and Ritchie's script makes no concessions to the conventions of period epics.
It flies along at a lunatic pace and while about half the jokes don't work, it is occasionally entertaining. As you'd expect, some of the action set pieces are great fun, and Jude Law is a most enjoyable villain. Handsome but dull, Charlie Hunnam certainly looks the part as Arthur, and has enough screen charisma to pull off an indifferently written role.
What the film really lacks, though, is a Merlin.
Arthur's magical mentor may have been held back for a grand entrance in a sequel, as Ritchie has stated that he wants to make another five of these Arthurian yarns. That looks unlikely, though, after a fairly disastrous opening weekend in the US and Asia.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (12A, 126mins) ★★
Films coming soon...
Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush); Baywatch (Zac Efron, Dwayne Johnson); The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit); Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (Jason Drucker, Alicia Silverstone).