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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Year: 2017
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Guy Ritchie
Producer: Guy Ritchie/Lionel Wigram
Writer: Joby Harold/Guy Ritchie/Lionel Wigram/David Dobkin
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Annabelle Wallis

The narrative around this film already being the first big scale tentpole flop of 2017 is a shame. Some downcast studio executive had to slink back to work using the back door the Monday after release and Warner Bros had already planned a six-film franchise with a complete story blueprint – Guy Ritchie was only going to be the first big name on their latest effort to recreate a Potter-style money spinner.

But after earning barely $20m back in America (with a production budget of $175m budget – the studio marketed it so heavily some in the industry estimated they spent at least that much again on advertising), another IP name is thrown on the scrapheap of failed franchise attempts – joining Guy Ritchie's last effort The Man From U.N.C.L.E., as it happens.

The other reason it's a shame is that despite everything counting against it, it's surprisingly enjoyable. The first thing you need to know is that it's the same effects-heavy Star Wars archetype we see a few times every year, where some scruffy street nobody finds pre-ordained super/magical powers and takes his place leading the good guys against the archetypal black hat villain.

But that's where Ritchie comes in. Despite the CGI creatures, traditional structure leading to the good vs evil showdown and every other familiar element, he gives it enough force of personality to stand out. The characters – against all odds – are the strongest aspects of the movie.

Any of the other big budget directors Hollywood calls on to make what are ultimately extended ads to sell plastic toys and video games probably would have rendered characters thinner than the plot, but Ritchie's background in cockney crime flicks (a talent he hasn't used since his best film, 2000's Snatch) elevates it more than it perhaps deserves.

Although a lot of the post mortem comment on why the film flopped wondered if star Charlie Hunnam as Arthur just wasn't a big enough name to bring punters in, he's a very brawny presence as the rightful heir.

When his scheming Uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) launches a rebellion to overthrow Arthur's father Uther (Eric Bana) and take the crown for himself, Arthur's parents spirit him away and put him in a boat to escape where he floats all the way to London.

Rescued from the river by prostitutes doing their washing (don't we all wish that was our origin story?), he's raised in the brothel where they work, growing from a scrawny, bullied kid into a beefcake bruiser who's kind of their manager/caretaker along with a small crew of other rowdy reprobates.

But as the kingdom falls further into totalitarianism and fear, Vortigern is determined to find and kill Arthur, knowing his nephew is the only thing that stands in the way of total power.

When the brothel is ransacked and Arthur captured, he's taken to the sword in the stone Vortigern knows will reveal him, and as soon as he wraps his hands around the hilt he's struck with visions of his father's death and the demon that killed him, one that's haunted Arthur's dreams as long as he can remember.

Together with a mysterious mage who can control animals (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and a band of rebels led by Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), who are determined to depose Vortigern, Arthur goes on the offensive, knowing he has to learn to control the power of the sword, facing the demon that haunts him and taking his place ruling England – and yes, this film is set in England, not America with dodgy cockney accents.

Ritchie's version plays up the supernatural elements of the story to mostly good effect, although it sometimes goes overboard. The water-going creature that underwrites Vortigern's power through blood sacrifices is well realised and executed, but the giant snake that attacks the royal court overdoes the CGI destruction a bit.

It's all very brown-hued and despite all the visual effects there's a level of dirt and grime that's at least appropriate to the period. The performances don't disappear amid the CGI backdrops like usually happens in movies of this calibre, and you'll have a much better time that you think you will.

But even though King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a surprisingly good movie, one wonders what the brass who greenlit it were thinking. It's true you can make a good movie out of any character or property if you take care of story and script, but someone has to line these executives and studio heads up and explain how kids who go to movies today aren't interested in such fusty old mythologies no matter how exciting a director (or YouTube spot) makes them.

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