Fantasy is in the midst of a mature renaissance. Game of Thrones on our TVs; The Witcher on our consoles; The First Law on our Kindles: these all offer us dark, cynical, richly drawn worlds to explore. So when King Arthur: Legend of the Sword swaggers into our cinemas, with a bit of swearing and some cockney accents, we can only look it up and down, give a snort of derision, and ask, “That all you got?”
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, in case the name didn’t clue you in, is a retelling of the classic Arthurian legend, because we needed another one of those. But this time there’s a twist (of course there is). You see, Uther (Eric Bana), King of the Britons, is betrayed and murdered by his naughty brother Vortigern (Jude Law); but before Vorty can kill Uther’s son Arthur, daddy sends him down river to Londinium (London, to you and me). There, Arthur is discovered and raised by prostitutes. King Arthur, raised in a brothel? Scandalous!
We see Arthur grow from a child to Charlie Hunnam in a montage edited to the beat of the percussion-heavy score. This is an early sign that Legend of the Sword is directed by Guy Ritchie (who seems to have now entirely forsaken his gangster roots for more blockbusting fare). In fact, it is one of the only signs that the film is directed by Ritchie. There’s a couple more of his montages, and some of the dialogue sounds like it could have been growled by Vinnie Jones, but other than that this is a rather basic summer blockbuster.
There are flashes of something more interesting lurking beneath the surface. The opening is promising, with giant elephants carrying pyramids on their backs. Vortigern converses with a tentacled thing in which reside his deceased victims. For reasons never fully explained, Arthur must travel to the Darklands (alas, no Jesus and Mary Chain on the soundtrack) to unlock the full power of Excalibur or something, and here we see, in montage, giant bats, snakes, and (bizarrely) R.O.U.S.s. These all sound interesting on paper, but Guy Ritchie is no Guillermo del Toro, and neither he nor his production crew have the necessary skill to make them anything more than “interesting on paper”.
Matters aren’t helped by Legend of the Sword’s colour palette. Or, more accurately, its lack of a colour palette. The film is pervasively, unremittingly, constantly, bafflingly grey. I wasn’t there in the 5th century, or whenever this claims to be set, but I’m pretty sure they had colours back then.
The cast labours under the oppressive greyness of it all. Hunnam has an impish charm as Arthur, and Law menaces as naughty Vorty, but the rest of the cast (which includes genre stalwarts like Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen) can’t seem to muster any enthusiasm or sense of fun. The only real standout is Neil Maskell, who is at the centre of the film’s best scene (you’ll know it when you see it; just look for the echoes of Reservoir Dogs).
In the end, there just isn’t enough to Legend of the Sword to make it anything more than a below average summer distraction. There isn’t enough inventiveness in its monsters. There isn’t enough style in the filmmaking on display. There isn’t enough wit in its script or characters. For all of its sound and fury, it is ultimately a rather dull affair. They say that empty vessels make the most noise. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is very empty indeed.