Guy Ritchie’s cheerfully ridiculous Arthur is a gonzo monarch, a death-metal warrior-king. Ritchie’s film is at all times over the top, crashing around its digital landscapes in all manner of beserkness,sometimes whooshing along, sometimes stuck in the odd narrative doldrum.
But it is often surprisingly entertaining, and whatever clunkers he has delivered in the past, Ritchie again shows that a film-maker of his craft and energy commands attention, and part of his confidence in reviving King Arthur Legend Of The Sword resides here in being so unselfconscious and unconcerned about the student canon that has gone before: Malory, Tennyson, Bresson, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle etc. Instead, Ritchie launches into an all-purpose tale of medieval brigands and scofflaws. It’s more of a laugh than Antoine Fuqua’s solemn take in 2004.
Arthur and the Round Table knights are more like Robin Hood and the merry geezers, a tale of right lairy thieves, and Ritchie’s story of their supernatural-assisted insurrection against the forces of tyranny cheerfully pinches bits of The Lion King and Gladiator and The Hobbit and Testaments Old and New; and he even has a talking-into-a-severed-ear joke nicked from Reservoir Dogs. It’s unsubtle to say the very least, in the same way that Iron Maiden is unsubtle. But maybe subtlety is the wrong approach. At any rate, Ritchie has his head firmly in the speaker bin, and at one stage an evil character even winces and cringes with a ringing in his ears, as if he has been doing the same thing.
Wicked Vortigern is ever paranoid about the rumoured youngling who might one day defeat him, and who is the only one capable of extracting a certain sword from a rock that forms the bizarre centrepiece to his Angkor Wat-style medieval palace complex. All the men of a certain age are rounded up and forced to attempt this feat, not knowing what it portends, and when Arthur can actually do it and then gets away, it looks as if he will be able to command a kind of prototypical resistance government composed of disaffected nobles and stout-hearted ruffians, including Bill (Aidan Gillen) and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou).
But there is no Merlin: a big flaw in this movie. Presumably the famous wizard is being saved up for one of the many followups in the franchise series in the pipeline,King Arthur Legend Of The Sword Full Movies which may or may not arrive. (We are still waiting for the rest of those Narnia films, by the way.) What we do have is the Mage, in the form of Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, a person of magic skills and the one female character in the knightly sausage party; she is possessed of a gaunt beauty, and eyeballs that tend to turn completely black in the ecstasy of magic. It is the Mage, who – and it’s a bit of a narrative cheat, this but allowable in a fabular context – can get Arthur and his guys out of a jam. Most impressively, she conjures a gigantic snake, after forcing Arthur to let a normal-sized one bite him. It’s a very creepy, and rather exciting scene. When Merlin turns up, probably in the next film, that is going to be a big showoff role and my money is on Robert Downey Jr.
It’s reasonably good fun and there’s a great “assassination” scene in which the director himself puts in a cameo as a frowning householder. The film rattles along exhilaratingly, if sometimes intermittently, like a fairground rollercoaster that occasionally stops and makes you get out and walk for a few minutes before letting you back on.
The legendarium of King Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table is rich in symbolism, mysticism, and visions, and so any attempt to narrowly rewrite it for modern tastes ends up coming across as a failure of imagination. Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur was the last costly wannabe blockbuster to ask what Arthurian legend would be like if it were boring, and before that, there was Jerry Zucker’s First Knight. Maybe it’s a once-in-a-decade phenomenon, with the gritty (but not too gritty) 2010s iteration being King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie, the former Brit-crime hotshot who’s since gone on to a career of giving the Guy Ritchie treatment to uninspiring journeyman material (this film, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows) with varying degrees of success. The best and worst thing about his King Arthur is that it’s a complete mess—by turns a generic fantasy film in the house style of the Warner Bros. superhero movies (dingy lighting, noticeable re-cuts), and a nose-thumbing, mock-cockney-fied send-up of the same. The franchise-hungry tentpole-itis of the present studio model has produced oh-so-many dumb rehashes of classic myths and fairy tales, but this is the first that is always funny on purpose.
The pre-credits prologue sets up a movie that seems uncharacteristically humorless by Ritchie’s standards, as Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), vanquishes the wizard Mordred while defending Camelot from an army of giant elephants. (As if one needed proof that no Hollywood screenplay can compare to the real thing, it should be pointed out that, besides being a knight, the traditional Mordred is also Arthur’s illegitimate son from an incestuous tryst between the king and his half sister.) But Uther is betrayed by his power-hungry brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), at which point the young Arthur is cast to float down the River Thames à la the baby Moses, and King Arthur unexpectedly and blessedly turns into an attention-deficient Guy Ritchie movie, starting with a rapid-fire montage. It races through what, in a different film, might be 20 minutes of story in a couple of wordless minutes, as Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows into a Ritchie-esque small-time crook on the tough streets of “Londinium.” He operates out of the back of a brothel, socks Vikings, and pals around with buddies with names like Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Back Lack (Neil Maskell), and Chinese George (Tom Wu). Ritchie and costume designer Annie Symons even give him a primitive shearling coat.
Yet this is still very much a paint-by-numbers fantasy adventure. Arthur pulls the fabled sword from the stone; gets rescued by Sir Bedivere The Wise (Djimon Hounsou) and his band of woodland dissidents; and is assisted by a nameless sorceress (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) on a hallucinatory vision quest and climactic showdown with Vortigern. (The latter is almost incomprehensible—the kind of thing that leads a critic to scrawl “giant snake?” in their notes.) It resembles nothing so much as a dysfunctional marriage between two films that can’t stand the sight of each other. In King Arthur’s more inspired moments, Ritchie plays hard-to-get with the plot, disrupting all that “reclaim Excalibur and Camelot, defeat Vortigern” Legend Of The Sword nonsense with motor-mouthed montages and flashbacks straight out of a smart-alecky heist movie, hearkening back to the name-making one-two of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. This is the light, entertaining King Arthur—the one where characters wonder aloud how the Round Table got into Camelot. (“Did you roll it in on its side?”) It has a somewhat unconventional score (hurdy-gurdy, sampled breathing), some interesting camera angles, and decent one-liners.
But there is the other, lugubrious King Arthur, a strained fantasy flick with pseudo-medieval production design that suggests a very special episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys about the evils of fascism, filmed on an overcast day. This King Arthur has it moments—mostly grotesque touches like the trio of cephalodian witch-sirens who live in a Wagnerian cavern under Camelot, their origin and purpose in the plot never really accounted for. Law, who always seems to look best dressed head to toe in black, even makes for an effective (though underused) villain. But though King Arthur gives him a chance to over-indulge his well-established taste for randomly speed-ramped action, Ritchie can barely muster any behind-the-camera enthusiasm for the high-fantasy elements; the special-effects-heavy sequences are as generic as they come, and incoherent to boot. His Camelot is a cheerless eyesore, a stone salt shaker on a mountain side. No wonder his wise-ass Arthur is reluctant to take up the mantle of kinghood.King Arthur Legend Of The Sword Ruling from such a dismal parapet looks like a chore.