King Arthur is neither Guy Ritchie’s worst film nor his best, but it might well be his most frustrating. A compendium of all the things that make the British director so occasionally exciting and so often irritating, this new, hyper-stylized take on the Arthurian legends veers between genius and idiocy.
To be fair, we probably shouldn’t even call this movie a “take” on the Arthurian legends. Rather, the plot is more like what a 12-year-old who hadn’t done the reading might come up with when called on in class. In this version, Arthur starts off as a child who’s cast away when his father, King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), is betrayed and killed by Vortigern (Jude Law), Arthur’s uncle and a practitioner of the dark arts. Raised in a brothel in the town of Londinium, the boy grows up to be a strapping hustler and small-time gangster (played with gruff conviction by Charlie Hunnam).
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And so, when the time comes for Arthur to rediscover his birthright and pull the sword from the stone, he has no interest in any of it. Being king would really mess with the cushy situation he’s got going on, in which he extorts Vikings, beats up johns, and lives a happy-go-lucky life. But pull the sword he does, and immediately he’s being pursued by now-King Vertigern and his “blackleg” shock troops. Arthur reluctantly assembles a scrappy band of men to fight back, bringing together low-bred mates like Backlack (Neil Maskell) and Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) with noble, committed resistance figures like Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen). There’s also Kung-Fu George (Tom Wu), a martial arts master who helped the young Arthur learn to kick ass. And some guy named Mischief John (Geoff Bell). Not to mention Pudd’nhead Wilson (Anthony Hopkins) and Jimmy Two Times (Joe Pesci) – okay, I might have imagined those last two.
But really, why bother to create a dutifully colorful cast of characters, with all those colorful names, if you’re going to do such shockingly little with them? (You’d think that a movie with a guy named Kung-Fu George in it would actually have some, y’know, kung fu.) There will be those who will hate King Arthur on principle alone – for the liberties it takes and its amped-up blockbuster bluster. But the real problem is that Ritchie doesn’t go far enough with the reinvention. In trying to breathe new life into King Arthur, he and his writers merely make the story more predictable and derivative, more in line with any number of other recent action movies and fantasy epics.
It’s even more of a shame than usual because there are true sparks of inspiration and wit here, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy much of the movie. Ritchie’s patented projection montages – in which characters game out the way a situation might develop, as we see the events swiftly transpire onscreen – can be fun, even moving; there’s a nice little charge to seeing a trope more commonly used in heist flicks and spy comedies (like Ritchie’s previous film, the wonderful Man from U.N.C.L.E.) applied to an ostensibly serious medieval epic.
There are other splendid elements here, too. Ritchie indulges the full, goth-nerd-friendly side of this material, with battle scenes that look like Molly Hatchet album covers come to life and a churning soundtrack (by Daniel Pemberton) that I can only describe as industrial death-folk; my teenage lizard brain ate that stuff up. What a waste, then, that so much energy and, yes, artistry has gone into making a movie so soul-crushingly generic.