Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword brings cockney swagger to British folklore, but in a very “Guy Ritchie” way that doesn’t jive with medieval hooliganism. Despite how those Monty Python boys once jested, Camelot ’tis not a silly place – in fact, it’s dreadfully serious and tonally ajar. Ritchie desperately wants to make a knights-and-mages RocknRolla, but stays too stern despite video-gamer digitization. How can such overwhelming mysticism be so pedestrian and drab? Maybe it’s the two-hour-plus running time? Or maybe the lack of evolved gangster coloring? Either way, “Ritchieisms” feel restricted by tight period bindings. All that, and I don’t see Charlie Hunnam as a fitting muse for Ritchie’s more charismatic tastes. Excalibur and all.
Mr. Hunnam stars as a young Arthur, heir to the throne of Camelot but convinced he’s a whore’s bastard son. He experiences life on the streets while King Vortigern (Jude Law) rules after betraying Arthur’s father (Uther, played by Eric Bana). There’s no worry of their paths ever crossing, until a fateful encounter with protected Vikings lands Arthur in hot water. En route to his punishment, Arthur pulls Excalibur from stone like in the famed tales. Vortigan finally meets his only threat to Camelot’s kingdom, so he organizes a public execution – one that’s promptly interrupted by a mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and her squad. They save Arthur and lead him to Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), where plans of mutiny are ignited. It’s time for the rightful King to claim his territory, no matter the cost.
This is all very cut and dry, until the magical world of mages introduces a power struggle in play. Those like Merlin (who, uh, isn’t in this film) find themselves on the run, as Vortigern sends anti-mage death squads to collect heads. Funny enough, because Vortigern himself harnesses dark arts – defeating Uther in horned demon form – which might have something to do with the slimy eel-mermaid-serpents who live in his water dungeon. It all gets very murky because while Arthur sows his royal oats, Vortigern is apparently hunting wizards and warlocks to make himself stronger? Ritchie and his co-writers (Joby Harold/Lionel Wigram) conjure fantasy fervor to keep intrigue spiked, yet end up drawing from an already thin focus that dances on a blade’s edge.
Action sequences become centerpiece material, from deadshot bow-and-arrow snipes courtesy of Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen) to a Diablo-like boss battle. Warring armies are grand – dark lords who ride on massive elephant backs – and enraged battles are not lost during a few bloody-knuckled brawls. When Arthur wields Excalibur he’s a blur of glowing steel that slices with grace and justice. It’s not as non-stop as one might assume, but chases through town squares and clanging metals do enough to provide dramatic release.
Except – once again – story takes a backseat.
While it’s established that Excalibur only “activates” when grasped two-handed, Arthur is seen mid-flurry throwing one-handed jabs. Maybe Ritchie thought his CGI tornado would distract with henchmen deaths, but those paying close attention will have a continuity field day. Here I was waxing on about ye olde kick-assery, only to be distracted by uncrossed “t’s.” Seeing a theme? You should. It’s a common one.
Ritchie’s vision is – as expected – pulled right from his heavily-edited filmography. The first few minutes alone go from flashback to title-card to fast-forward montage of Arthur growing up (quick-cuts flash with dizzying speed). It’s not an unexpected “Ritchietization” of source, but such pop-aggression doesn’t work in Classicism eras. You can’t squeeze a “Do your fucking job!” comment without drawing snickers. You can’t use random GoPro camera angles in a time when such technology didn’t exist. Even the filmmaker’s act-it-out storytelling tastes bland like porridge with homogenized dialogue and zero added panache. Ritchie so desperately wants King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword to carry itself like his heralded whip-crackers (Snatch, anyone?), but this renaissance regurgitation only makes it halfway. Awkwardly stuck between posh tartness and knighthood sincerity.
As Arthur, Hunnam airs on the side of snark and thievery. He’s shirtless often, brash but stone-faced, and a much better bruiser than storyteller. Someone like Aidan Gillen finds a more suitable place in Ritchie’s world, able to duel wits and dance around combatants – yet Sir Goosefat aside, the good guys are all very interchangeable. Craig McGinlay to Freddie Fox. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey to Djimon Hounsou. No one is ever given a chance to stand out (Hounsou bellows while Bergès-Frisbey summons birds), so it’s refreshing to see Jude Law camp it up as a family-slaughtering baddie. Although, his most involved scenes morph man into roided-out scythe monster. Human Vortigern is relegated to being another evil sorcerer with greedy motives (especially when it comes to his Dark Tower).
It never seems like Guy Ritchie knows what movie he wants to make. The raging, hell-forged actioner? The cheeky rags-to-riches jester piece? Daniel Pemberton’s renaissance-rock score sets an adventurous mood (my favorite component), but King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is a drawn-out, oddly composed knight’s tale that demands no place in history. You might recognize such icons as the Lady in the Water, but Ritchie takes unnecessary steps to ensure involvement (Arthur running furiously through the woods like a schoolboy). Excitement is fleeting, dialogue rambles and Jude Law’s tyrant-approved throne slouch pretty much sums the film’s overall attitude – a hearty “meh,” worthy of no diamond-studded crown. Especially where female character arcs are concerned.
Guy Ritchie's King Arthur is a tonal jumble that's certainly no heir to the throne, as it's never rock-steady in approach or execution.