It’s as though Guy Ritchie binge-watched Game of Thrones and then thought to himself, “Hey, I can do that!” and made KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD. To which I reply, “No, Guy. No you can’t.” What we have here is a chaotic script that attempts several, mutually exclusive tones and genres, with poor Charlie Hunnam as Arthur gamely morphing into whichever one he and the script find themselves. It’s a painful to watch as the ear-amputation would have felt to the person experiencing towards the end of the seemingly interminable story.
This is a radical departure from the Arthurian tales. The names are the same, but Mordred is an evil mage who dresses like Cernunnos, and is not related in any way to the Once and Future King. In another change, Camelot is already in situ, with Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) using Excalibur to defend it from the mage in a spectacular set piece involving at least one horse leaping to its doom, and many sparks flying. Uther may be a wise king, not wanting to paint all the mages with the same brush as Mordred, but he’s not wise enough to realize that his shifty-eyed brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), has his own designs on Camelot. Before you can say ‘abracadabra”, Uther is dead, and two-year-old Arthur is set adrift, like Moses in the bulrushes. Rescued by the kind of good-hearted harlots that are so popular in fiction, he is raised in a brothel, where his anger, drive, and sense of thriftiness allows him to rise to the top of the gang scene, dispensing justice to Vikings when they get out of line with the ladies of the house, collecting protection money from the local merchants, and paying off the constabulary, nicknamed the Black Legs. As a special treat, Arthur’s anger is writ large for us by having a sequence wherein Hunnam stands and screams using every fiber of his being while also showing off his breathtaking abs.
It’s all skittles and beer, or the 5th-century version of same, until the rebellion (of course, there’s a rebellion against Vortigern) intrudes on Arthur’s turf, and through a series of disjointed events, he becomes the one who pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone. Which means irking Uncle Vortigern, gaining the attention of a singularly sulky Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) with a gratingly monotone voice, who convinces both Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) to abandon his blacksmithing and Goose Fat Bill (Aiden Gillen) to abandon whatever he’s been doing since Uther’s downfall to help her put Arthur back on the throne. Which, in turn, leads to a series of even more disjointed events, many of them involving fiery infernos and protracted sword fights that drain the will to live right out of an audience.
To his credit, Ritchie doesn’t do things by half. This is a big, blowsy mess of a film that proves Ritchie’s genius for the kinetic quick-cuts that brought him to fame in LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, and that when he eschews that idiom, he is well and truly lost. Hence the unfortunate attempt to graft the small-time East Ender sort of story onto Arthur’s, complete with the slicing dialogue dripping with deadpan irony attempting to coalesce with the more pedestrian dialogue and tone of the standard costume epic. The nicknames of Arthur’s gang, too, have a contemporary ring, though who am I to say definitively that Goose Fat was not popular during the Dark Ages in Londinium? I can say that there was no large scale, if any production of brandy then, and, further, that the baroque style of carving seen on Vortigern’s throne is just as anachronistic as the jersey t-shirt Hunnam sports from time to time, and is far less aesthetically pleasing. If it were part of a large art direction, anachronism would be fine, but said art direction seems to be as chaotic as the script. I one point, I wondered if Ritchie was just messing with us and If someone would pull out a cell phone.
Then I saw a pattern arise. Or maybe it’s the human brain’s penchant for finding pattern even where there is none. Fathers and sons loom large here, while women, even the most loving, find this world a place where life is nasty, brutish, and short as they are little more than tools or plot points for the men going about their manly business. Meanwhile, Vortigern’s power is entirely invested in a very tall tower, the tallest in Britain. It Ritchie working out some issues by using cinema and abusing our patience. Make of that what you will. Make what you will, too, of the tentacled creature who gives Vortigern advice for price bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ursula from THE LITTLE MERMAID.
If you want a film that works being set in the days when knighthood was in flower, but with a contemporary vibe, hie the hither to A KNIGHT’S TALE, with Heath Ledger rocking out to 70s rock while jousting, or, of course, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, with its watery tarts, killer rabbits, and displays of violence inherent in the system.