'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword'
Every now and then (usually about once per decade), Hollywood decides that the time is right for a King Arthur tale and audiences respond with a firm “No thank you.” The last time was in 2004 when Antoine Fuqua and Clive Owen delivered an epic so forgettable you’re about to turn to Google to confirm its existence. In the ’90s, ZAZ veteran Jerry Zucker got sincere with ‘First Knight’ to vast apathy. Now Guy Ritchie takes his swing at the legend. You’d think it would be fun because that’s Ritchie’s specialty, right? No such luck.
Since we live in the age of franchises and superhero cinema, this isn’t an Arthurian legend set amongst the Knights of the Round Table in their prime. It’s an origin story. When we first meet Arthur (Charlie Hunky Hunnam), he’s living in a brothel and leading a gang of miscreants between nightmare visions of his childhood. He of course has a secret origin backstory (doled out in a way too long and serious prologue). He’s the son of King Uther (Eric Bana, underused as always), who was killed thanks to the unholy alliance of evil magician Mordred (Rob Knighton) and his brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who’s now king. Due to that tragic past, Arthur is the only man who can pull a magic sword out of a rock (Excalibur, yo). Vortigern sets his sights on killing Arthur, ‘cuz he likes the king gig. So, Arthur finds a kickass crew to take the king down. No Merlin, sadly, but ya gotta save something for the sequel, right? Presumably with a title like ‘King Arthur 2: Meet Motherf*cking Merlin’ featuring Liam Neeson as the magic-spitter.
The entirety of ‘King Arthur’ feels like a battle between Guy Ritchie and his studio. At times (the good bits), the movie has the quick-cut zing and snarky sense of humor of Richie’s usual movies. However, for the most part this is a shadowy slog of a hero’s journey and it’s more than a little reminiscent of the fun-sucking takes on DC comics that have become the Warner Bros. house specialty. The battles are massive, but they’re also murky and difficult to see and overburdened by mandated darkness. The medieval epic clocks in at just slightly over two hours, but feels infinitely longer thanks to all the brooding and emo shots of mud and rain. The pacing is wonky, reeking of studio interference. It’s feels like every few minutes an executive demanded that Ritchie make it clear how serious and somber this story is supposed to be. It sucks the fun out of the movie pretty much any time Ritchie gets on a roll with his hyper-stylized, chronology-busting ways.
There are passages when the movie is snappy and goofy, plus other sequences where it almost seems like the filmmaker is having campy fun with the dark and serious tone enforced on him. Jude Law stretches far enough over the top (almost eight popes on the ‘Young Pope’ scale) that he’s clearly doing a little winking at the film’s expense. Charlie Hunnam alternates from being charming to a big hunk of unformed clay glowering in the rain.
Other than that, most of the cast either blend together in their dullness or emerge as insufferably bad (like David Beckham, who’s unlikely to parlay this role into an acting career, thankfully). The women rarely even get names and are either witches, prostitutes, corpses, or all three. It’s a bit gross, but to be fair any decent amount of time spent on a female character would also distract from Ritchie’s desire to linger on close-ups of muscular male flesh as often as possible. ‘King Arthur’ should undoubtedly be the most homoerotic studio tentpole of the summer that isn’t part of the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise. (But don’t tell the bros that. Why spoil the fun?)
What we have here is a massive mess that only sporadically lives up to the promise of Guy Ritchie’s talent and vision. For all the ludicrously over-stylized montages, snappy bits of British lad mag dialogue in period costume, and violence, there are also infuriatingly endless passages of overly serious historical hokum, distractingly cartoonish CGI monsters, and impenetrable exposition dumps masquerading as dialogue. You get some of the best bits of Ritchie flicks and modern fantasy epics and lots of the worst hunks of both.
This is a dysfunctional marriage for the filmmaker and genre, filled with wild highs and soul-crushing lows. People who enjoy pithy Ritchie movies and those sad folks who adore generic fantasy blockbusters will both emerge disappointed. In other words, expect King Arthur to disappear for another decade, just long enough for studio executives to forget that no one actually wants to see a big-budget version of this story.