Guy Ritchie. You know him for his wickedly fast-paced films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and the two commercially successful Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Now he applies his patented whiz-bang camera work, back- tracking storyline, and rat-a-tat dialogue to the classic Arthurian legend.
It’s tough being a king, y’know. Just ask King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) who not only has to fend off an attack of Mage’s (magicians) with Godzilla-sized elephants, but his own brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), is planning a coup behind his back to usurp the throne. Lucky for Uther he’s got Excalibur, the sword of power! But, right after defeating the bad guys… er, Mages, Uther is killed by Vortigern who, unbeknownst to anyone, has dabbled in the Dark Arts to keep his youth and kill his brother. However, Vortigern misses his chance to kill young Uther’s young boy, Arthur, who is whisked away down river (ala Moses-style) to Londinium (that’s ancient London).
Arthur grows up in the streets, fighting, stealing, and learning fancy negotiating skills at the brothel where he lives. Meanwhile, back at Camelot, King Vortigern is worried when (oopsie!) a rock has appeared with THE sword sticking out of it. Yup, anyone who yanks it out is the one, true king and Vortigern can’t wait to kill him! Through a series of circumstances, adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) shows up and surprise! But with Excalibur in his hands causes him such great pain and distress (he sees disturbing visions) that he shuns the sword entirely. It looks like its immense power it too much for him to handle.
Taken to safety from Vortigern’s soldiers, Arthur meets old knight Bedevere (Djimon Hounsou), outlaw Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), and a pretty young sorcerer called The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a protégé of Merlin’s, along with a small rebel force who believe in Arthur. Once Arthur, through a very, very, VERY long process of getting to know Excalibur and understanding it (one hand grip, nothing; two hand grip, bingo!), starts to come around and decides to kill his uncle. After an ambush to kill Vortigern in Londinium goes south, Arthur finally uses Excalibur and wow! That sucker waylays an entire garrison of soldiers in seconds flat. Nice!
But Vortigern has plans to seek Arthur out by kidnapping his friends, but really, has that ever worked? Naw! Arthur just has The Mage whip up some magic snake-thingy potion and Arthur is ready to face Vortigern with Excalibur by his side. There is a lot more I could tell you, but at a running time of 2 1/2 hours, this review would take up a whole lot more space. Suffice to say, the movie’s long and takes its time in telling a story, even though it could have lost about 30 minutes easy.
With a script by first-time writer Lionel Wigram, Joby Harold (Awake), and director Ritchie, you can see and hear the same nuances from Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. Many scenes are back-tracked, which means, the characters say something and then you see it as it happened or did happen or will happen. This fast-forward/flash-back style of writing is okay once or twice, but all the way through the film gets damn annoying. Now combine this with Richie’s unique camera technique of slo-mo, smash-cuts, Go-Pro running, Matrix ‘bullet-time’ shots, and all manner of weird and bizarre lens and SPFX effects, and this movie is one beautiful nightmare to see.
The writing ranges from classic Arthurian jargon to fun, modern fast-paced banter is pure Ritchie. Hunnam, all ripped and buffed, makes an admiral Arthur and handles Ritchie’s lighting fast rat-a-tat dialogue well, as much as he fights. The problem here is the overall length of the movie, the dragged-out scenes, and extremely long exposition that could have been trimmed or just cut completely.
Example: there’s 10-minutes about Arthur going to an island to have Excalibur touch a stone altar. It adds nothing, means nothing, and could have been cut. On the other hand, Ritchie does film with such a heightened sense of excitement it’s glorious to watch, especially with the blood-racing, pulse-pounding score by Daniel Pemberton. So, points to him for that.
There have been dozens of movies of King Arthur from a Disney cartoon to the outrageous Monty Python film. This sprawling epic tale spanning the generations of Arthur, his dad, Lord Uther Pendragon, and Arthur’s rise to kingship is my personal favorite. The cast is incredible, the script is awesome, and the film making is fantastic without going crazy into the world of SPFX.
All told through the eyes of wise wizard, Merlin (Nicol Williamson), we start with a terrible battle and the land divided between two English Lords. But Merlin ‘sees’ that Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) will be king, and gets him to accept the powerful and ancient sword Excalibur from the mystical Lady of the Lake, a sign of true kingship whomever wields it. The Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) accepts Uther as king and there is finally peace. . .until Uther’s lust for Cornwall’s wife gets in the way! He nails her (with a helpful Merlin disguise) and begets a child, Morgana. Meanwhile, Uther bears his own son, Arthur, with his own wife.
But treachery costs Uther his life and, before dying, he shoves Excalibur into a stone, crying out, “None shall wield Excalibur but ME!”. Years later Arthur (Nigel Terry) is now a young squire to his brother whose come to a big ceremony to pull the sword from the stone. But through a mix-up and happenstance, Arthur yanks the silver scimitar from its resting place and badda-bing! Arthur is now KING! As everyone is screaming foul, Merlin shows up to calm things down and tell Arthur his true identity.
After a brief skirmish of Lords who are divided over Arthur’s true kingship, he meets the lovely and endearing Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi). We time-jump again where Arthur, filled with arrogance like his dad was, picks a fight with unbeatable Sir Lancelot of the Lake (Nicholas Clay) and wins, using Excalibur to cheat and breaking the sword in the interim. Don’t worry, he gets a new one. Anyway, Arthur learns a valuable lesson in humility and makes Lancelot his champion, but that’s a big mistake. Looks like Guinevere has got the hots for Lancelot and Arthur is totally blind to it.
THEN there’s trouble from Arthur’s grown-up half-sister, Morgana (Helen Mirren), who’s gone all sorceress-crazy and wants all of Merlin’s magical secrets, especially his valuable ‘charm of making’. Double-crosses, affairs, bastard children being born, and the king (with the land) fall into despair. Only the Holy Grail can save Arthur now, but his errant knights looking for it are killed off by Morgana’s totally evil child, Mordred (Charley Boorman). Only the lowly apprentice turned knight, Perceval (Paul Geoffrey), has the nerve to find the “grail” and rescue Arthur from near death.
This has John Boorman written all over it: he co-wrote (with Rospo Pallenberg), produced, and directed this magnificent, beautiful saga with a sweeping grandeur that rivals Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Add to it the dynamic soundtrack of Trevor Jones and the lush cinematography of Alex Thompson (notice the omnipresent green shimmer whenever Excalibur is present–nice touch!) and you have an exquisite movie that deserves several screenings to really appreciate it.