“My name is Arthur — have you heard of the legend of the sword?”
Has Guy Ritchie successfully undergone one of Hollywood’s most successful career rehabilitations without anybody batting an eyelid? Not only has he completely overcome the woeful career lows of Swept Away and Revolver, both widely regarded as two of the worst films this century, he has also become unshackled from the expectation that he makes nothing but London set crime movies with a penchant for fast paced dialogue, which saw many lambast him as a mere Tarantino imitator.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword arrives after two Sherlock Holmes movies and 2015’s severely underrated box office flop The Man From U.N.C.L.E, which took more artistic cues from Jean-Luc Godard in its French New Wave inspired style (yes, really) than any of the filmmakers to which he was once compared. Ritchie experimented with his style with awful results in the mid 2000’s- now, he is fresh off the back of the most artistically rewarding film of his career, which also managed to be the most crowd pleasing work since he emerged with Lock, Stock. King Arthur naturally falters in comparison, but isn’t without an abundance of offbeat charm.
However, the fact audiences didn’t (lock) flock to watch Ritchie’s last film means that his bonkers update on King Arthur now feels like a compromised vision. The film is unsure whether it wants to be an oddball fantasy romp, or what the public imagines as a textbook Guy Ritchie film- a British set criminal caper with lots of bantering dialogue and quirky characters who have names like “Kung-Fu George”.
Here, Ritchie takes a piece of folklore seemingly as old as time and makes it more convoluted than its ever been. Arthur (a surprisingly charming Charlie Hunnam) is a “bastard son of a whore”, who runs the back streets of Londomium with his crew. After a situation involving some rebel graffiti puts him on the radar of tyrannical king Vortigern (a delightfully hammy Jude Law), he finds himself in the queue to pull the sword from the stone. He finds that only he has the power to pull out Excalibur, and as a result, is the most wanted man in a kingdom run by a tyrant. With the help of a mage who can control animals (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) and his old Londonium crew, he plans to kill the king while hiding in the shadows.
King Arthur doesn’t feel like it was a victim of studio interference; however, it distinctively feels like Ritchie himself intervened in order to regain his box office pulling power after his most artistically accomplished film to date was met with an undeserved shrug. The film finally arrives in cinemas almost a year after its initially scheduled release date and has a clear identity crisis due to the sharp contrast in tones.
It’s a Game of Thrones style battle for the King’s throne one minute (which thanks to choice camera angles, manages to be every bit as brutal, yet still maintain a family friendly PG-13 rating. He even includes a shock tribute to Reservoir Dogs’ most famous scene in the third act, for heavens sake), before turning into a hysterical Snatch-style crime caper the next. The result is a film that is enjoyable from moment to moment, never once threatening to become boring, but ultimately proves too tonally inconsistent to hang together as a whole.
Because as enjoyable as the film is, it is hard to ignore the fact that the storytelling on display here is pretty abysmal. We are thrown straight in to a borderline irrelevant opening prologue, in which Ritchie gets to flex his fantasy battle muscles for no discerning reason, before we are introduced to Arthur in a fast paced montage that spans somewhere between 20 and 30 years. Within the first few sequences, he throws everything at the wall; character deaths, fight scenes with gigantic elephants and more prostitutes than you’d expect in a family fantasy greet you upon arrival. Yet the film finds it hard to properly establish itself despite this supposed grittiness, which is tonally at odds with much of the film’s jovial, Ritchie-esque lad humor.
It’s telling that until we get to a scene that feels like classic Ritchie (roughly 20 minutes in), where Arthur is asked to tell a story about the day’s events that led him to the discovery of rebel graffiti, the entire film feels bloated and confused in terms of narrative direction. Instead of feeling like the first in a six film franchise, as this was initially billed, it feels like we are thrown in to the middle of film four and watching a “Previously on: King Arthur” segment in order to catch up.
Ritchie bends over backwards to distinguish this King Arthur film from countless other tellings of the legend. From irrelevant detours involving mythical creatures (if you’ve ever wanted to see Jude Law sacrifice his family to women who live inside a giant squid, sign up now), to tonally ill fitting moments of brutality, the end result is an endless sugar rush of fantastical ideas that work well individually, but don’t hold up to scrutiny when tied together, let alone help tell a convincing and coherent story.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a failure- but a wholly enjoyable one, that in its best moments manages to capture the boundless fun that made audiences fall in love with Guy Ritchie’s films in the first place. It is undeniably a mess that is easy to deride once you’ve left the theatre. But while you’re sat in front of it, it’s hard not to get swept away by his batshit insane vision for a mainstream, family-friendly fantasy epic.