Ritchie seems to be on autopilot, ticking off the broad strokes.
Hollywood’s wheel of rebootable public domain IP once again lands on Arthurian legend, only this time, divisive Brit trash-auteur Guy Ritchie is at the helm. Without seeing a trailer, it wouldn’t be difficult to mentally conjure a “Guy Ritchie King Arthur” movie from whole cloth, down to the narrative beats, cutting pattern and dialogue style. Sadly, that near parody of his own personal filmmaking rhythms is responsible for the best elements of this project. It’s everything else that sucks.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an ambitious re-telling of Arthur and Excalibur and all that shit we’ve seen a million times on screen. Well, the film itself isn’t so ambitious, but the notion that this should kickstart a six film series definitely is. The film plays out like a typical origin story, beginning with an epic prologue and stylish opening credits sequence. These two set pieces, back to back, set up the film’s frustrating identity crisis. From the “Directed by Guy Ritchie” chyron forward, you have to swap back and forth between these dueling tones.
The prologue features an excellently cast Eric Bana as Uther Pendragon, the magical sword toting King of England, as he battles Mordred and his horde of giant elephants before being betrayed by his jealous brother Vortigern (Jude Law). The action is gigantic but dark and moody in a way that obscures any potential enjoyment of the oversized thrills. This transitions into the credits, where we watch young born king Arthur grow up into a formidable young man (Charlie Hunnam), raised in a brothel as a street legend with his own little gang and code of honor. This bit feels more like vintage Ritchie, with the quick cuts and Lock, Stock-esque affection for alleyways and graft.
The problem is that the scenes calling to mind Ritchie’s earlier indie work seem to be the only ones he cares about. Every time the film settles back into the mythological heavy lifting, discussing ladies in lakes, mages and towers of dark power, Ritchie seems to go into autopilot, ticking off the broad strokes but eager to get back to his wily, street smart Arthur. As a result, all the scenes with cockney banter and foot chase montages feel lively and fun, but the film’s overarching plot of King Vortigen’s quest for omnipotence just feel like a tiresome retread interrupting an otherwise light on its feet genre subversion.
Hunnam does arguably the best non-”Sons of Anarchy” work of his career, but in Arthur, he still doesn’t quite gel as a leading man. In other opportunities to front a picture, his terrible American accent holds him back, but here, it’s clearly not his mode of speech. There’s just something about him that makes it hard to build an entire movie around him. Even so, his Arthur is a charmer and honorable, if only concerned with the small world around him. The thrust of the film’s drama comes from his reticence to ascend to his blood right, an inner conflict that plays out surprisingly well in today’s political climate of the individual’s grappling with how to stand up to power. The macho loyalty of his tight knit crew and the way Arthur’s guerrilla attacks on Vertigen’s kingdom begin to feel like a winking heist film provide some much needed respite from the humdrum medieval drama. But it’s not good when the central antagonist isn’t just an obstacle in the way of the hero’s goals but in the way of the audience’s enjoyment of the film entirely.
That’s not to say all of the action is a waste. Ritchie does a great job of making the magic of Excalibur feel unique, utilizing his trademark speed ramping and visual effects to show the otherworldly power it bestows upon its wielder. But nothing here has the posh pop-art of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or the cleverer-than-thou invention of either Sherlock Holmes film. This reviewer legitimately fell asleep through the entirety of the film’s final sword fight but was wide awake for the epilogue that amounts to little more than idle banter about building a round table. Take that as you will.