There are few guarantees in life, but a Guy Ritchie movie being a wretched irritant is generally one of them. So, uh, what to make of Ritchie's ramshackle but raucous reinvention of Arthurian legends, which puts all of the director's usual tics to work in surprisingly fun fashion and even toys with a quippy query about what grows a myth in the modern era?
The clumsily titled King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has Ritchie’s stamp all over it, but somehow manages to be an entertaining romp through Camelot, a zippy, zig-zag-y zoo of fantastical creatures, handsome men, and nightmare-fueling prophecies. This alternate England Ritchie concocts is awash in a steely grey palette that manages to be visually engaging and imagistically representative of two key elements in Arthurian narratives, namely sword and stone.
The actual plot is basically Arthur funnelled through the familiar formula of another mythic Englishman. Like Robin Hood, this Arthur is pitted against the weasely younger brother of the king who has usurped the throne and thrown the kingdom into ruin, while penniless Arthur joins a merry band of outlaw heroes in their forest hideout. Throw in some references to Merlin, magic, and monsters and you have the makings of an Arthurian overlay.
What works to separate this version from previous Camelot (and Nottingham) movies is Ritchie's jittery energy, which in turn gets a boost from a wonderfully charming turn by headliner Charlie Hunnam. Ritchie's spastic style is nothing new, but here it feels embedded in the storytelling, not merely a flashy distraction, but an exaggerated extension of Arthur's off-kilter adventures that send him dashing through bustling city streets and surviving a personal quest on an island of dangerous creatures.
The best use of Ritchie's itchy editing is found in a handful of scenes where characters either recount the past or suggest the future, complete with intercut flashbacks and flashforwards. It's a fun comical bit used just often enough that it feels fresh without overstaying its welcome. Hunnam also nails the timing needed to match the quick cuts, so the comic jabs hit with some accuracy.
Taking the silliness at face value is key to enjoying Ritchie's pic, since the whole thing reeks of ridiculousness. It also reeks of reshoots, which rumours suggest covered as much as 100% of the movie. That sounds crazy from a budgetary standpoint, but it’s oddly believable while watching the movie because there’s certainly a discernable messiness at work in the forward thrust of plot and action.
Oddly enough, though, this seems to work in the movie’s favour, since the slapdash presentation runs directly against the grain of Hollywood’s current mode of smooth homogeny. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is jagged and strange, which gives it the shaggy feel of a B-movie not quite assembled by committee. Hokey as it all is, this walks and talks like an outsider among the increasingly familiar horde of Hollywood blockbusters.
Of course, the viewing experience is often akin to drinking a sweaty beefcake shake. This is a Ritchie movie, after all, so it brawnily bleeds testosterone. Story tidbits include that Arthur was raised in a brothel and Jude Law's evil king maintains his power by making a habit of stabbing the women in his life.
The cast is mostly a male affair with no Guinevere in sight, but there is a powerful Mage character played by Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey. She avoids simply being a love interest and regularly proves to be a vital member of Arthur's team. At times, it seems the heroes would accomplish next to nothing without her. Bergès-Frisbey’s character certainly marks a step in the right direction for a filmmaker as male-focused as Ritchie, even if he defaults to the predictable damsel in distress situation for a quick segue into action.
One never forgets that this is a Ritchie movie to the core, but it remains a Ritchie movie imbued with more contagious energy and eclectic craziness than the vast majority of the titles in his filmography. It’s a clanging, jangling fantasy about rocking out with Excalibur, a muscle-flexing parade of preposterousness that thankfully never takes itself too seriously.
Ritchie also has an ace up his sleeve in Daniel Pemberton, who provides the movie with a blistering score that makes it feel like Arthur and his band mates are perpetually attending a mind-melting medieval concert. Considering how rare a memorable score in a flashy Hollywood action pic has become, Pemberton's contribution proves particularly valuable.
Mainly, though, this is just another peppy pit stop on the ongoing Arthurian cinema tour. In terms of manly mainstream adaptations, it can’t match the muscularity of John Boorman’s Excalibur, but it certainly bests slightly more recent middling efforts by Jerry Zucker (1995’s First Knight) and Antoine Fuqua (2004’s King Arthur). While purists may balk at the rock-and-roll revisionism, Ritchie uses the oddball mashup of old and new to his advantage, brandishing it like a weapon that strikes a messy, scattered blow that nonetheless pulverizes boredom.