King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the latest stab at trying to give British tough-guy auteur Guy Ritchie another franchise after his success with a pair of Sherlock Holmes yarns, is a useless film in almost every regard. It’s some of the most effort packed white noise and chaotic imagery audiences will likely ever hear or see. When people knock Michael Bay’s Transformers films for being cacophonies of noise and fire that signify nothing, they could also extend that equally to a large part of Ritchie’s output, but especially this tone-deaf, ceaseless “sword in the stone” tale.
Arthurian legend has been notoriously malleable throughout literary history, and as such, Ritchie and co-writers Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold start from an interesting enough space. Following the murder of his kingly father (Eric Bana) by his evil, power hungry uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law), Arthur is tucked safely away onto a boat to be orphaned. Adult Arthur, played by Charlie Hunnam, has been raised on the streets of Londinium by whores, thieves, hustlers, and assorted criminal types, forcing him to build up not only cunning, but empathy. When the fabled sword in the stone resurfaces after being submerged for years, Vortigern puts the call out for all young men of an appropriate age to attempt removing it so he can swiftly execute the real heir to the throne. Arthur succeeds at the task and is taken in by a group of his father’s former advisers to help the young man claim his birthright and restore order to the kingdom.
On paper it sounds fine, and Hunnam is a great choice for a brash, charismatic take on one of the literature’s most mythologized figureheads, but this isn’t the same Ritchie who produced Sherlock Holmes or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. making King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. This epic is made by the same Ritchie who made Snatch and RockNRolla: fast cuts, brick bat theatrics, lots and lots of faced paced, gruff speechifying, a blisteringly paced montage every ten minutes to take the place of thought or exposition, and no discernable ability to contain or maintain any narrative thread for more than a few seconds at a time. That approach could work in a crime caper comedy, but for what’s ostensibly a serious tentpole blockbuster, it’s extremely annoying.
There are many sequences in Ritchie’s most recent film where a character will rattle off every step of a plan they’ve come up with and character involved in quick succession. He’ll keep cutting back and forth to show us every step of the plan unfolding. By the time the character has finished explaining the plan, we’ve already seen the whole thing enacted to its conclusion and we’re onto the next scene without fully registering what happened. That’s a cute thing to do once or twice, but to do it once or twice in every act of a film is exhausting and unnecessary. This is a case of Ritchie resting on his laurels instead of attempting anything new. He doesn’t need to exhibit restraint, but he doesn’t need to keep pulling out the same party trick over and over again.
After about an hour of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword I had been bombarded by so much information that I couldn’t tell if there were six minutes or ten hours of film left to go. From moment to moment, most of them strung together chaotically, it’s impossible to tell if any given scene will be packed with anything useful or just a bunch of fast paced exposition that will either be negated or not go anywhere beyond that scene. The film is constantly at war with its own identity, not knowing if it wants to be a modern blockbuster, a retelling of Arthurian legend, a classic Guy Ritchie joint, or if the filmmakers got King Arthur’s knights and Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men confused.
To say that Ritchie’s latest is exhausting might be one of the year’s greatest understatements, but it never makes such an extreme feeling seem warranted. At one point Daniel Pemberton’s otherwise memorable and catchy score employs heavy, rhythmic breathing as part of the orchestration, and it unintentionally makes it seem like the film’s own soundtrack is labouring to keep up with everything that’s happening.
It’s so simultaneously under-developed and over plotted that there’s no room for character. Outside of knowing Arthur is claiming what’s rightfully his and Vortigern wants to hold onto what he took by force, I couldn’t tell you a single motivation for any other character in the film except how Ritchie places them in support or opposition of Arthur. No actors in the film are bad, but everyone who isn’t Hunnam or Law is a prop; pawns moved around a board by someone with a lot of energy and nothing more. I could never tell you with any certainty what was going on at any given moment, but I at least knew who the heroes and villains were.
Visually, it’s not much to write home about, either. There are two visual settings to Ritchie’s work here: brooding medieval tropes that would look at home in Zack Snyder’s filmography or shots so smoky and obscured that it looks like someone sitting just below the frameline is vaping up a storm. Not that any of it matters, since Ritchie will just be cutting away to something else milliseconds later. For so much money has been obviously thrown at this production, it would be nice to see some of it in more than strobing flashes.
But credit where it’s due: at least King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t humourless. Unlike someone like Snyder’s unnecessarily dour blockbusters, even at its darkest moments Ritchie’s film isn’t all gloom and doom, and moments of charm sneak through. It’s a film where Arthur berates a grown man by saying “Put that ring back on, honeytits” with nary a whiff of irony. If one were to view this as an extension of Ritchie’s early output and not his Hollywood output, a viewer’s mileage would be greater. Anyone expecting an actual spectacle packed epic would be best advised to look elsewhere.