REVIEW: “King Arthur: Return of the Sword” Sharp on Wit, But Not Much Else

By Joe Hammerschmidt

The works of Guy Richie had never quite shown any appeal, even while growing up; I was still far too young for his breakout smash, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” I had no interest in his attempts to remodel “Sherlock Holmes” for the 21st century, yet I had shown some small hope for his last directorial effort, 2015’s “The Man From UNCLE.” Unfortunately, not knowing the source material, like so many who later paid to see it, only made the pill harder to swallow. His approach to story assumedly is sought to please only his extravagant mind and confuse all others. His take on a classic 60s TV spy drama was muddled and just impossible to decipher. What he’s working with in his latest, “King Arthur: Return of the Sword”, is more widely recognized in both literary and historical circles. Knowing his unique approach to a story, though, Richie only strives to borrow blueprints from either, then disregard everything to show off as much flash as possible, and more British hybrid wit-and-gore than I could possibly stomach.

Richie’s Arthur, portrayed with a certain physical edge by Charlie Hunnam, never had that satisfying a family life. Amid the warring faction on the outskirts of the bustling metropolis of Londinium, from a young age, he faces a pure “identity crisis” with his whole family uprooted at the hand of his dear uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). With the untimely murder of his father Uther (Eric Bana), once the just king, Arthur never had the opportunity to experience what being of royal blood could offer him, but ultimately through multiple mishaps and setbacks of varying comic fortitude, and his intentional chance encounter with the mighty sword Excalibur, the presumed “rightful king” eventually understands his life’s endgame, to reclaim his heritage.

The pivotal war of words/actions between Arthur and Vortigern drives the plot forward, building momentum at each possible point with a high degree of marksmanship. The unfortunate happenstance is that simultaneously, Richie, alongside fellow screenwriters Jody Harold and Lionel Wigram take too much advantage of every possible aspect; the director’s usual over-the-top style is all on display per usual, keeping his visuals on the edges of their toes at those key moments of surprise, yet not every film of his has made effective use, often forcing a disconnect between the relative action and the director’s own perceptive vision. Almost as if he’s not in the room, leaving the actors to try their best effort at playing with the scenery, going well over the point where both humans and mythical CGI creatures are chewing hard at it.

This eye-catching interpretation of Camelot hits you instantly in the first five minutes as the ongoing struggle for dominance shows its ugly side. From real and computer-crafted set pieces, with the most real playing the best role; to random animals of many sorts, and of many species I may question for even existing in this time period; even down to the inherent presence of Vikings who hardly contribute anything but a cheering section for Arthur; you’re sold on the setting, and just how different Richie had strived to make this world different from any traditional cinematic adaptation of the Arthurian tales. However, the execution is still flawed with far too many items being thrown at you in one moment; again, this may have worked for “Snatch”, but the same principle need not apply here. In any of the outlandish action scenes, it’s impossible to focus on just one aspect. I could not keep up with that pace for too long before all the senses were drained. Never mind any freedom with historical inaccuracy, it’s just a miracle I could survive without walking out from overkill.

Luckily, how Richie treats and builds relationships with his actors kept my experience grounded, with Law proving the right foil to the rather wasted-upon Hunnam. Even with having yet to conquer “The Lost World of Z”, whom many have said was the actor’s best work outside of his breakout part on TV’s “Sons of Anarchy”, our Arthur acts his heart out, yet is still far from likable, finding just enough to commit to the higher-level action scenes but otherwise going through the motions at other times. Law, who hadn’t taken many opportunities in an outlandish, almost cartoon-esque villain fares much better, taking a few solid steps beyond his usual acting pastiche. Aiden Gillen, who I adored in last year’s “Sing Street”, portraying the beneficial adviser Goosefat Bill, is always a welcome sight, naturally fitting in his surroundings like a well-worn jacket; whatever his “Game of Thrones” character is regularly wearing. And then our Merlin substitute, French actress Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey assuming the form of The Mage, an all-powerful being appearing out of thin air to accompany Arthur’s quest; her performance is a keen duality, in that she consistently drives the plot to a screeching halt, yet can still keep the pacing spry and quick-footed when the only major female character in the fight.

Given that the end product is merely two hours of incomprehensible back-and-forth between a family on the edge of implosion, coupled with multiple layers of busy work made to look like creative effects work and realistic locations meant to incorporate a sense of realism (had it been easy to notice), there’s still enough enjoyment to be had, knowing it’s a fair step up from his last credited work, but two steps down from his credible film. Between uneven performances, carefully placed one-liners, and an apparantly degrading cameo appearance I somehow missed during my early viewing, the overall journey is still muted, with the landscape and nearby violence downgraded to stay within mature family viewing parameters. While Richie logs in the drive to make a decent King Arthur movie using everything in his limited toolbox, as the viewer one would expect more in terms of staying firm to the characters’ legacy, and it falls just short of that mark. To imagine that the powers-that-be are serious about making a six-part franchise out of this first wedge of the round table is impossible; yet to anticipate more out of this world, given needed adjustments to the weak structure, and to perhaps offer Djimon Hounsou’s Sir Bedivere a larger role, seems all but inevitable. Recommended only to the hardcore medieval fans, or those most enthused by Richie’s work; this critic alas falls in neither category. (C+)

“King Arthur: Return of the Sword” opens Friday in wide release; rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language; 126 minutes.