Someone makes a big King Arthur movie every few years, taking a different approach to the Matter of Britain … trying to tailor the material to contemporary tastes, and more often than not just missing the mark. Indeed, this feels a lot like a deliberate attempt to end up on a list with Knights of the Round Table, Camelot, Excalibur, First Knight and King Arthur. With that track record of box office disappointments, the field of movie Arthuriana is weirdly skewed towards left-field takes like The Sword and the Stone, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Lancelot du Lac. Somehow, it’s still an important story – attractive to television producers and revisionist historical/fantasy novelists as much as filmmakers – but audiences somehow don’t connect with it. Which may well be a shame, but our myths have moved on … to superheroes and space opera, perhaps, just as in earlier decades the Western or the war film took over our Arthurian impulses. There’s still a high recognition factor, though, and this was apparently intended as the foundation of a Marvel-style shared cinematic universe, which explains why some major players (Merlin, Lancelot,Guinevere) don’t get a look-in and why it follows Ridley Scott’s not-exactly-garlanded Robin Hood in being an origin story that takes its hero from foundling to king and winds up with the construction of a round table and a coronation.
In its own way, it’s a Guy Ritchie geezerfest version of The Sword in the Stone (or a knights in armour makeover for Kingsman: The Secret Service) as young Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), orphaned by treachery and black magic, grows up in a brothel and goes from wideboy pimp to born king by falling in with relics of his dead father’s regime and various types oppressed under wicked uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). Ritchie’s original string of laddish crime movies ran out – perhaps blotting the memory of how fresh Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was when it debuted – and he took a swing at Sherlock Holmes,which connected enough to earn a sequel, then The Man From UNCLE, which didn’t. Here, there’s a hefty dose of Game of Thrones, the current touchstone of gritty fantastic, which runs as far as casting Aidan Gillen as another slippery character, though we get a surprising number of narrated anecdotal sequences in Ritchie’s gangland shaggy dog tale mode, as Arthur’s future knights duck and dive around a brothel on a bridge and an open-air kung fu gym, dealing with the king’s corrupt police (‘the blacklegs’) and not quite managing anything like sparkling charm. Hunnam oddly makes Arthur sound a bit like John Lennon, and plays like a mean-spirited Prince Hal, who has to be bullied by Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and a nameless mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) into even considering heroism. He pulls the sword not from a stone but the petrified corpse of his betrayed father (Eric Bana) and wavers a lot, afflicted by memory-reveal flashbacks, before taking the fight to the baddies.
The opening is an epic fantasy battle with golem mammoths and collapsing castles, plus Vortigern hitting on the useful trick of beefing up his mage mojo by murdering his (few) loved ones – which means Katie McGrath joins the honour roll of performers killed even before their credits appear onscreen. Later, Vortigern has Macbeth-like meets with three Lovecraftian witches (Lorraine Bruce, Eline Powell, Hermione Corfield) – billed as ‘syrens’, and basically squid-mermaids – that tip in some other odd, creative elements. However, the payoff is your generic 2017 film finale (Wonder Woman has exactly the same scene) in which a sword-wielding protagonist comes of heroic age while battling a hulked-out-on-magic-steroids wicked relative in limbo. There’s some spectacle here and a lot of business, but it’s seldom engaging. Valuable players like Gillen, Freddie Fox, Neil Maskell, Peter Ferdinando and Geoff Bell enliven a few scenes, but then get lost in the mix, and it’s hard to get behind a band of knights who don’t really like each other all that much. Berges-Frisbey, one of the vampire mermaids from Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides, is at least an interesting presence, though she seems mostly here to nudge the plot along by exerting limited mystic powers which need to be topped up by sword-play and face-punching from the lads.
As to whether this Once and Future King will get future instalments … some are still waiting for the sequel promised at the end of Rocknrolla, let alone the much-more promising prospect of The Girl From UNCLE.