Guy Ritchie’s take on the King Arthur legend plays like a 180 million dollar book report written by the worst student in the class. While the madman behind Snatch may have glanced at the original Arthurian text at some point, he certainly doesn’t remember it. The film plays like the half-baked oral presentation that a kid would give to the class, where he constantly mixes up or forgets plot points. While Ritchie’s transition from boiler room gangster yarns to delightfully homoerotic blockbusters has been delightful up to now, he tragically sabotages himself in his effort to make the “cool” King Arthur story.
It becomes clear very early on that this movie is terrified of telling its own tale. A laughably incoherent prologue sets the tone, drenching the screen in sweeping shots of giant elephants and burning castles whilst telling us absolutely nothing about the characters. If you look very closely, you may catch a glimpse Uther (Eric Bana) and Vortigern (Jude Law) running around in the chaos, but they’re just props. Props used to hurl us at a lightning speed to a betrayal that ultimately leads to a young Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) being cast away from his kingdom.
Thus begins our hero’s journey, although he faces a greater challenge in Ritchie’s bizarre storytelling than any on-screen foe. The story often dwells on its most trite elements while often literally fast-forwarding through anything that may make Arthur a compelling character. While an early sequence that documents Arthur’s childhood through fast paced, dialogue-free edits is well crafted, the same gimmick is employed at potentially richer moments. As Arthur learns to wield Excalibur, he’s sent on a journey through a dark realm in which he’s forced to survive on his wits against fearsome creatures. Does that sound fun? Too bad. Ritchie has it over and done with in the span of a couple minutes with a flurry of incoherent visual effects and lingering takes of Hunnam screaming into the sky.
Perhaps this swift approach to character development is employed to cover up another astonishingly dull turn from Hunnam. While this Arthur may be a little slow on the uptake with the whole destiny thing, he’s written to be a pragmatic charmer and natural leader. Hunnam sells absolutely none of that. He lethargically reads through lines that would’ve certainly sounded a lot better coming out of the mouths of the better actors who likely turned this role down. However, the blame may not be entirely on him, as the far superior Law finds himself equally lost. Vortigern is such a watered down version of the typical slimy traitor that Law has little else to do other than either scowl or yell. He doesn’t even get a proper square off with Hunnam, as the climax ultimately comes down to Arthur taking on a CGI monster.
Although Hunnam lacks the presence of an action star, Ritchie does stage some impressive set-pieces for him. His take on the battles involving Excalibur is particularly visceral. He uses the sword as less of a brute force weapon and more of a nuclear option. Whenever Arthur triggers the power, Richie captures the ensuing chaos with dizzying computer generated one takes. We feel as lost in the confusion as Arthur’s foes are, the camera practically swinging with the mighty sword.
The film finds footing in the second act when Arthur and his rag tag group of makeshift knights plan their coup on Vortigern. When we meet a couple of Arthur’s friends early on, we’re treated to a storytelling sequence very much in the vein of Ritchie’s earlier work. The banter between them feels really genuine, with the rapid fire camera moves and cutaways serving to heighten the humor. As more rebels come to Arthur’s aid (including Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen), Ritchie delights in their camaraderie. In fact, the film peaks far before the climax during a spectacular street chase sequence in which every character is given something fun to do. It all begs the question of what this movie would be like if it had a smaller budget. If Ritchie was forced to work economically and create a full on heist movie in this world, it would’ve likely been a lot stronger.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a classic case of a filmmaker hitting big budget burnout. Ritchie struggles hard against the epic scope of the piece, clearly more interested in the elements that seem more in line with his other films. However, since this is a studio picture, we’ve got to put all the money on display and those two conflicting visions ultimately tear this thing to shreds. It’s certainly not going to kick off the six movie franchise it was originally intended to. Perhaps after Ritchie does his remake of Aladdin, he can leave his seat at the studio table and go sharpen his skills on a smaller film, because this one is going to find itself trapped in stone.