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MRQE Top Critic

November

Walks you out of an emotional underworld back into the light —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Leave it to Guy Ritchie to take a Brexit from the traditional trappings of the King Arthur legend and bring fresh energy to the story of Excalibur.

Rise a Knight

Arthur approaches the sword in the stone
Arthur approaches the sword in the stone

There’s no mistaking Ritchie’s unique visual style; sense of action and pacing; witty dialogue and humor. He turned Sherlock Holmes into an action star and he revisited The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in an underappreciated pizzazz-packed plum. Here, he’s in his element. It’s a type of Snatch for the Middle Ages.

Many of the familiar names in the Arthur legend return for this reinvention. Most notably, there’s Mordred the Mage (Rob Knighton, Anti-Social), the Lady of the Lake (Jacqui Ainsley in her feature debut) and Uther (Eric Bana, Munich), better known as Arthur’s father. Guinevere hasn’t entered the picture yet. Merlin has fled the scene and makes his influence felt from afar, by way of a female Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides).

Familiar knights like Percival and Tristan fall into place as Arthur breaks out of the slums of Londinium to reclaim his birthright, the crown of England, following the rise of evil King Vortigern (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows) in an unholy pact with Mordred.

Sure, there’s plenty of source material to mine in Sir Thomas Malory’s classic Le Morte D’Arthur, but Ritchie strikes out on his own with co-writers David Dobkin (Jack the Giant Slayer), Joby Harold (next year’s Robin Hood) and Lionel Wigram (who collaborated with Ritchie on the first Holmes and U.N.C.L.E.).

The Sword in the Stone

It’s an awkward start, almost like Ritchie’s fumbling his way into a groove. The screen fades in and out on a tower explosion, characters are introduced and the stage is set for a major betrayal. Even the opening credits are oddly timed; midway through, the location of Londinium is slipped in among the production personnel.

Arthur is seen growing up, progressively improving his skills as a thief and a protector of his family — the ladies of a brothel. When Charlie Hunnam (The Lost City of Z) hits the screen, the pace picks up with typical Ritchie aplomb. And it’s all accompanied by a fantastic score by Daniel Pemberton (another U.N.C.L.E. alumnus); the music channels some of the raw power of Hans Zimmer’s scores for the Holmes movies.

In Ritchie’s world, at first Excalibur seems to be a rather modest sword. The first impression is lackluster; it doesn’t look like a magical sword of legend. One character even comments it looks smaller than he expected. However, when Arthur steps up to retrieve the sword from the infamous stone, it’s a fantastic scene and the sword’s awesomeness is revealed.

There are biometrics involved as Arthur unlocks the sword’s full power. That notion of biometric science and Excalibur was floated in an episode of Ancient Aliens (whether that was before or after the TV series jumped the shark is a matter of taste).

Drain the Moat

One of the best parts of this reimagining is the whole back story behind how Excalibur got lodged in the stone. It’s inventive, suitably magical and brings significant emotional meaning to the titular Legend of the Sword.

Like Ritchie’s London in Sherlock Holmes, this Camelot is a gritty place. It’s not the fabled Camelot of Richard Harris fame, or even the Kennedys, for that matter. The famous Round Table? Yeah, well, that hasn’t been installed yet. It’s a Camelot in turmoil with a community living in fear under Vortigern’s reign.

The story follows Arthur’s rise from street urchin to reluctant rebel to trustworthy leader of knights who don’t yet have the wherewithal to don shining armor. Like Bruce Wayne’s lessons in Batman Begins (Why do we fall? So we learn to get back up.), Arthur learns that we all want to look away from the bad. That’s what makes the difference between a man and a king; a king looks into the darkness and finds answers.

Facing challenges similar to Luke Skywalker during his trainings on Dagobah, this Arthur runs a gauntlet of giant serpents and other evils in the Dark Lands, a terrific set piece of fantasy action that helps transform Arthur into a worthy leader.

Following in the footsteps of other heroes with similar taglines (something like “Thief. Warrior. Gladiator. King.”), this King Arthur easily joins the ranks of Conan and Maximus Decimus Meridius as a hero for the times — then and now.