Guy Ritchie is apparently committed to making all of his protagonists scrappy, edgy and unable to play well with authority figures. In the early days of his career, that formula served him (and constant star Jason Statham) well, with his tales of low-level criminals, working-class heroes (who might also be criminals) and tough-guy antics, in such films as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He even managed to make it work in the first Sherlock Holmes reboot that brought out many of Holmes’ vices and psychological damage in a way that brought out the best in Robert Downey Jr. The climaxes of those films always seemed overdone, but the performances and character development were solid. I’d even dare to say there’s a great deal to like about his previous film, the big-screen version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
But with his latest effort, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Ritchie has gone too far. And I say that not some Arthurian purist, but as someone who gets truly bored and weary when a direction is clearly lost in his own work. Ritchie (also a co-writer) is throwing in monsters, giant animals (rats, bats, snakes, and elephants seemingly right out of The Lord of the Rings), martial arts, magic swords that result in even more magical powers, and so much death-defying, computer-generated peril and action that I had to wonder why I was watching a superhero origin story rather than a piece of historical fiction.
Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim, The Lost City of Z) plays the man who would be king as a young man unaware of his royal heritage. He’s actually the son of the previous king, Uther (Eric Bana), who was usurped by his beloved brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Theres is the obligatory drawing of the sword Excalibur from the stone by Arthur, but when the sword begins to glow blue and pulls Arthur into blood battles that he doesn’t even remember after the fact, we begin to realize that this story is about powers and not about valor, nobility, or sacrifice—traits a real king would cherish and seek to enhance.
I’m all in favor of a filmmaker retooling a familiar brand. There have been plenty of tellings of the King Arthur story over the years (Camelot, Excalibur, Disney’s animated The Sword in the Stone, even director Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 telling, King Arthur), and if all you’re going to do is tell the story the same old way, why bother? But Ritchie has gone so far away from the classic story that it’s almost impossible to see it in the framework, under layers of nonsense. And I get that a lot of what is missing will appear in the planned (and purely theoretical) sequels, but that doesn’t excuse Hunnam’s empty, soulless take on this characters. He’s a charismatic actor with a perfect blend of charm and intensity in his toolbox, which is reduced to posing, brooding and being a generic scoundrel.
But his blandness here is nothing compared to Law’s posturing as the villainous uncle. Most times, we see Vortigern barely able to sit up straight on his throne. Maybe he’s tired or lazy or stoned. My guess is that he read the script for Legend of the Sword and has become a surrogate for the audience, barely able to keep their eyes open during this bout of cinematic tedium.
The impressive list of male supporting actors (including Aidan Gillen and Djimon Hounsou as loyal compatriots to Arthur) are sadly not balanced by female characters, who all seem grossly underwritten and completely interchangeable, with perhaps the exception of Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as a character called The Mage, who something like a younger, sexier Merlin. At least she injects a little bit of life and spark into these muddy, dreary, overblown proceedings.
For reasons I’m still working out, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword made me think about Gods of Egypt, which is far crazier, more colorful, ambitious failure. But there’s a dedication in both to reworking familiar material to the point where it becomes unrecognizable, as if the filmmakers forgot what made these stories timeless and just went for spectacle over substance. It goes without saying that there are so many ways a film can go wrong, and there are worse flaws in a movie than trying too hard, but that’s the true heart of why this movie misses the mark so wide. There’s too much going on in a film (the first in an alleged series, I remind you) that could benefit from not trying to pack five movies’ worth of material into one package. If there is a next King Arthur movie, maybe whoever is in charge can scale things back a bit and spend more time compiling a group of interesting characters. What we have here is just so much muck.