Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of the King Arthur legend has a surprising central flaw; it’s not enough of a Guy Ritchie film. Throughout his career, from establishing himself as the auteur of the East End with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, to Hollywood fare like his 2009 take on Sherlock Holmes and 2015’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake, Ritchie’s best work has been characterised by the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, his greatest assets are a gift for writing comic dialogue and a frenetic filming style inspired by music videos and the jump cuts of the MTV generation. It’s a style that may annoy many people, but it’s his style, it’s what people expect from a Guy Ritchie film, and it’s what I expected from King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Instead, that’s confined to a few scenes (coincidentally the best scenes in the film), the vast majority is Guy attempting to create some sort of epic historical fantasy along the lines of John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur, which Ritchie himself has cited as a major inspiration. On one level, we should perhaps laud an established filmmaker for stepping boldly out of his comfort zone, but it just simply doesn’t work. The end result is a violent, confusing, chaotic film that seemingly can’t wait to jump from one frenetic action scene to the next, the time in between taken up by men gruffly shouting at one another and ludicrous melodrama. And, despite a plot that involves 300-foot tall elephants and witches that conjure giant snakes, it portrays itself with the utmost seriousness, the main characters displaying a machismo so excessive it borders on camp. Ultimately, Ritchie’s stab at epic historical fantasy is leaden and dull, like a Lord of the Rings film without the characters and world creation that make the series great, or a Game of Thrones without the intrigue and power dynamics.
The origin of this particular Arthur is a strange mix of medieval legend and the Bible. When Jude Law’s villainous Vortigern stages a coup in conjunction with sea witches and murders Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, the young Arthur is, like Moses, sent away on a boat to Londinium, where he’s found by prostitutes and quickly becomes schooled in the ways of petty villainy and backstreet brawling. He then tangles with the wrong group of Vikings and, as part of his punishment, is made to try and pull Excalibur from the stone which, in Arthurian legend at least, is the signifier of a true king. Unlike all the other reprobates he’s travelling with, who try, fail and are branded on the wrist, Arthur pulls it out first go and then faints, apparently unable to control its immense power. He’s then cast into a dungeon where Vortigern meets him and explains the whole you’re actually the son of a king thing (why exactly he does this is never explained, but I guess Arthur would have found out at some point) and informs him that he will be executed. Arthur is saved by the combined efforts of a mage (despite being practically the only important female character in the film, she’s never given a name) and Uther’s former general, Sir Bedivere. After some umming and ahing about whether he can really be arsed to lead a rebellion, Arthur acquiesces, takes part in some weird magic ceremony to unleash his potential and, with his band of mates and some loyalist soldiers, eventually draws Vortigern out of hiding. And then, well, you can probably guess the rest, the film is called King Arthur after all.
All of this is far more complicated than it needs to be, instead of developing its characters or giving any depth to its world, the film drowns itself in plot, with “twists” that make almost no difference to the overall narrative and do little except delay the inevitable. Basically, we’re never given a reason to care about anything on screen, Arthur generally lacks the wit and charm that characterise protagonists in a Guy Ritchie film, and it’s hard to root for him in his protracted revenge mission. This is not, by the way, Charlie Hunnam’s fault, he’s proven elsewhere that he’s a talented and charismatic actor, but he’s weighed down by a monotonous script that has him go from defiant loner to plucky underdog, neither of which are in any way interesting.
One scene in particular hints at what could have been, Arthur’s questioning at the hands of the Blacklegs, Vortigern’s private police force, about what exactly happened with him, a prostitute and a horde of Vikings. What plays out is a classic interrogation scene, Arthur and his cronies frustrating their superiors with evasive answers and misdirection. It’s the one time the film feels in the spirit of Ritchie’s previous work and displays all the hallmarks of his signature style; the rapid-fire dialogue, the unreliable narration, and the quick shifts between the story being told and the action discussed playing out before our eyes. It’s a brief burst of light in what is often a dreary two hours and is over far too quickly.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is also a waste of a tremendous cast, not only is Hunnam reduced to a cipher, but, as Vortigern, Jude Law is given little to do beyond an evil stare and maniacal declarations to no one in particular. The supporting players are also filled with talent not being properly utilised. Aidan Gillen, for example, who is so memorable as the scheming Lord Baelish in Game of Thrones, is nearly anonymous as Bootstrap Bill, whose only defining feature is a Robin Hood-like ability with a bow. Djimon Hounsou also fades into the background as Bedivere as a result of never being given anything remotely interesting to say. In this context, David Beckham’s much reviled cameo doesn’t really matter. Yes, he’s a bit wooden and puts on a slightly silly cockney accent, but it’s hardly egregious in a film full of one-note stereotypes. Above all, he’s onscreen for about a minute, and it’s kind of hard to believe just how much fuss that minute has caused.
For a film being sold on its action, the fight scenes are also a bit of mixed bag, while the opening battle (which includes the aforementioned elephants) is impressively handled, too often the sword fights and chase scenes are an incoherent mess. It’s all aggressively in your face, like it’s trying to be a medieval Jason Bourne but without the same level of editing skill, and consequently the film regularly feels like an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed. Even this is better than the Excalibur scenes though, where swordsmanship meets bullet time in CGI sequences that feel like special moves from a computer game and lack any real impact. Again, it feels like a waste of talented performers, the fight choreography and stunts are glimpsed rather than showcased, the camera jumping about like a hyperactive bunny instead of just focusing on what we need to see (and yes, I am aware of how old that makes me sound).
Despite its flaws, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is intermittently entertaining, especially if you view it as a guilty pleasure full of spectacle and melodrama. A couple of scenes shine, and there’s some nice aerial photography of rural battlefields, but overall, it’s a directorial cautionary tale, an ego-driven passion project that shows up in glaring fashion Guy Ritchie’s flaws as a filmmaker.