Guy Ritchie made his bones (so to speak) on hard-edged crime films with wicked humor and striking visuals. Then he went big budget with Sherlock Holmes and provided a very different (but surprisingly canonical) consulting detective. Next up was the criminally underrated The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – the best non-Bond Bond flick since the first Jason Bourne.
Now Ritchie is dissecting and reassembling the Arthur legend in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – and it’s a very kinetic movie that is also, simultaneously, more than a bit of a slog.
In this version of the legend, it’s Arthur’s (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim, The Lost City of Z) father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana, Hanna, Closed Circuit) who defeats Mordred (Rob Knighton) – at the beginning of the movie! And (shades of Hamlet!) it’s Uther’s brother, Vortigern (Jude Law, The Young Pope) who kills him – but not before young Arthur is sent to safety in a small boat (holy Moses!).
Arthur is found and raised by a prostitute named Lucy (Nicole Wren, A Song for Jenny) – becoming a street rat who salts away money earned for running errands and punishing overly nasty clients.
Vortigern gained the power to defeat Uther from making a sacrifice to three squid women/Syrens (The Odyssey) and takes over the kingdom through power and fear.
Meanwhile, Arthur is building his own little kingdom of street people until, one day the two’s stories merge – Camelot sits on a bay and that bay suddenly recedes, revealing a stone with a sword stuck in it.
Vortigern orders all men of the appropriate age to take a crack at pulling it free – and Arthur does. But he’s overwhelmed by visions of what happened the day his father died – and collapses.
He recovers in the dungeon with Vortigern sitting next to him and talking to him about the sword and being king. The plan is to show the people that Arthur isn’t fit to be king and beheading him in public.
Enter the mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) – and a colossal falcon – taking advantage of the distraction, Arthur uses the sword to cut his bonds and flees with the sword.
Arthur finds himself in the company of The Resistance (or at least key members) in a cave well outside the city – with the unlikely crew including: Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou, The Legend of Tarzan, Wayward Pines), Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones), Rubio (Freddie Fox, Victor Frankenstein), Percival (Craig McGinlay), Wet Stick (Kinsley Ben-Adir, Vera, World War Z), Back Lack (Neil Maskell, Utopia, Humans) and his son Blue (Bleu Landau, EastEnders) and Maggie (Annabelle Wallis, The Tudors, Peaky Blinders). And, of course, there’s The Mage – who is as powerful as she needs to be and as vulnerable as she needs to be when she needs to be that.
This unusual group consists of a warrior, an archer, several street rats and a spy. More than enough to take Vortigern down if Arthur’s sly approach works.
From this point, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a chess game between Vortigern and Arthur – centered on the king’s sorcerous tower that grants more power the higher it’s built (there’s an obvious metaphor there that I’ll leave alone).
It’s raw power and evil magic vs. intelligence, wit and a seething desire for vengeance (and a bit of good magic).
Once the main thrust of the story (sorry – that tower metaphor just won’t go away) is established, we’re set for the Blamalot in Camelot – Arthur and his men harry the construction of the tower while waiting for a shot (literally) at Vortigern.
Ritchie’s take on Arthur is considerably more supernatural than any of the previous versions – the film abounds with CGI. Very awkward CGI – like Ritchie wasn’t quite sure what, exactly, he needed so he went a little bit too far rather than err on the side of taste and good storytelling.
The action scenes aren’t that much faster paced than the rest of the movie – Ritchie’s camera is always busy (the stories of Arthur’s life and Vortigern’s grasp for power flash by in less time than it’ll take you to read this review) so that even the moments where there should be pauses for emotional beats to be effective, there aren’t.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, then, is an over-edited, awkwardly constructed, slice-and-dice take on the Arthurian legend that never stops moving but becomes a chore to sit through – simultaneously fast paced and a total slog (I finished my big drink with twenty-five minutes to go).
The sad thing is that Ritchie does have an original take on the myth but is so consumed with making it move that everything else is either too big or too little.
Final Grade: D