One of my favorite stories of kings, schemes, and thwarted regal ambition will forever remain Macbeth, the Bard’s Scottish play about an overeager general’s rise to the top. And strangely, it crossed my mind more than once while watching Guy Ritchie’s absolutely ludicrous King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. There is of course the fact that it not-so-subtly homages (or steals?) from the play when its villainous Vortigern (Jude Law) aspires to climb a throne with the help of three weird sisters—albeit here the witches have been crossed with sea squids. They read his fortune and damnation, but like the movie they’re in, they are just one more bizarre, tentacled ingredient in a cinematic cauldron threatening to overflow in silliness.
Forget eye of newt or toe of frog, Ritchie’s King Arthur is stuffed to the brim with every cliché and genre fad that developed mainstream geek chic credibility in the last 17 years. You liked the thrice-sized elephants from Lord of the Rings? Here, they’re closer in height to the Chrysler Building; anxious to see Rey trained by Luke? Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur goes through a Dagobah trial by fire subplot in a three-minute montage; needed more scenes of children being turned into 300 Spartans? In King Arthur, Ritchie’s speed-ramping courtyard montage comes with actual martial artist Tom Wu training the lad. Throw in Warcraft references and at least three Game of Thrones veterans, and fan culture starts to blur.
There are so many jarring and incongruent elements being poured into this singular devil’s brew that one wonders if anyone ever stopped to consider if there’d be a soul alive foolhardy enough to consume the damned thing? It’s not quite clear, but at least during moments of pure batshit lunacy (including a literal giant bat that tries to eat Arthur), it won’t be accused of being dull. The term “astonishingly unwieldy mess” may however be apt.
Announcing with audible trumpets that tweed-wearing Arthurian scholars can find the door ASAP, King Arthur of the 2017 vintage kicks off with the legendary monarch’s father, King Uther (an all-too-briefly seen Eric Bana), single-handedly decapitating the Mage King Mordred with Excalibur. In this kingdom, magic-touched folks are the sword and sorcery equivalent of the X-Men’s mutants, but Uther and his leadership are so worried about this minority that they fail to realize the real threat is his brother Prince Vortigern. Vortigern also dabbles in magic on the side and uses it to lead a coup and murder his brother.
Luckily, Uther’s son Arthur escapes on a boat and, in typical Ritchie fashion, finds himself at a brothel where he’s raised by a community of prostitutes, whom he then so charitably protects. Faster than you can say Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie has Arthur grow up into Charlie Hunnam, a street-wise hustler with a gang of mates. They run the alleyways and graft the local fuzz, here known as “Blacklegs.” But eventually, Vortigern’s reach finds him, and upon pulling the legendary Excalibur from the stone (which when held by Arthur is akin to Mario picking up an invincibility star), the young nephew becomes enemy number one for his uncle.
Even so, Arthur finds help from his working class chums plus his father’s exiled loyalists (Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen) to lead a resistance. He also might be developing a romance with a mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) but when the film itself cannot be bothered to give the character a name, the chances of audiences caring any more than Ritchie are fairly remote.
Like most Guy Ritchie movies, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is best in its element when it focuses on what the filmmaker does well: showcase smalltime, smartass crooks cracking wise and maybe even elevating themselves to a slightly larger smalltime. Hence the best portion of the movie is the beginning when Ritchie is allowed to give faint medieval stylings and flavors to the same movie he has been making on and off for about 20 years. He also finds a good partner in Hunnam, who has charisma to spare and plays Arthur as a decidedly brash but good-natured, easygoing rogue. More Robin Hood than typical depictions of Arthur, it’s still a cheery departure from recent Arthurian yarns in the last few decades that drown in self-serious posture and “realism.”
Indeed, Legend of the Sword embraces the fantasy aspect full-tilt and some effects prove better than others. The aforementioned elephant opening is welcome popcorn spectacle, as is the idea that monstrous wolves and beasties still live in England’s untamed and foreboding wilderness. It’s (mostly) not the CG-fantasy elements that undo Ritchie at all; it’s raising the story above street level and into a political game of thrones where the movie begins to stumble, and only then crumbles more as increasing genres are piled atop this already shaky foundation.
Hunnam smugly skipping over the most cliché plot points in a typical Ritchie montage is clever, but doing it to explain how he brings his uncle to his knees, or schemes an assassination plot is disorienting. As is Arthur being a chosen one savior who turns into a CG-action figure whenever he touches Excalibur. High-frame rate kinetic energy gives way to a video game malaise.
Add on typical problems associated with the filmmaker—such as all the women in the movie being either victims, whores, or witches, and most of whom barley register a personality in their fleeting screen time—and a third act that devolves into Harry Hamlin levels of absurdity, and the recipe for a total derailment is complete.
Obviously, comparisons will be made between this revisionist take and how Ritchie handled Sherlock Holmes for Warner Bros. eight years ago. But while that original film was every bit as featherbrained as this, there was still some semblance of Doyle’s Holmes and Watson to give it spark. This is complete noise, even when the director brings his Watson to set with Law playing the villain. The English thesp is actually very good as the heavy, often choosing to dryly underplay his nefariousness to delicious results. But like everything else, he slowly fades away in a narrative that seems jumbled from too many reshoots. By the climax, Law has been totally subbed out for a computer generated shadow ghost straight out of Game of Thrones by way of Street Fighter. Trust me, it sounds cooler than it is.