It’s like this, right. So there’s this Guy. Not American Guy, but British Guy. Right geezer he is. Loves his ramp-ups, goes bananas for the montages, see. Made his bones on the streets of Londinium. Tried his ‘and at the world’s greatest detective, goes alright, so he pitches in lock, stock and two smoking proverbials and has a crack at reworking some telly. Now he gets real gritty like with a legendary tale. Ditches the wonder and gives us a real bare-knuckle CG bruise, he does. Still got a sword though. Ain’t half bad, but it’s not worth a whole sack of pennies, we’ll wager. Let’s take a butcher’s.
Arthurian legend is often caught between the medieval romanticism, and far more historical depictions of a Romano-British leader. Ritchie abandons both, instead plonking us down in the middle of a Lord of the Rings battle between Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) and the dominant forces of Modred and the corrupt mages. Uther’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law) betrays his kin for ultimate power, and Arthur is left adrift in a boat and left to be raised in a brothel. In the grand tradition of Moses, when Arthur comes of age (as Charlie Hunnam), rumours of a true born king emerge. One that can pull a certain titular sword from a stone.
KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD isn’t so much a film as a series of montages set to drum and bass. The crazy thing is that is actually works for the approach to the material, with the dueling fates of Arthur and Vortigern represented in a trademark Ritchie bare-chested series of man fights. An early recap of how Arthur got money out of a viking is an amusing non sequitur, and there’s something endearing about the entire myth of Arthur being reduced to a bunch of lads who are just looking out for each other on the mean bridges Londinium.
Yet just likeLock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, it is about lads almost exclusively. There’s nary a woman to be seen who isn’t cast a literal prostitute. Behind the walls of Camelot, women are simply there to be slaughtered or protected. The singular female action lead isn’t even given a full name, simply referred to as The Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey). Given the Arthurian tradition has long been filled with tales of powerful women from Guinevere to Morgan le Fay, and there’s a whole feminist Arthurian branch from novelists such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, the casting is shortsighted and a bit offensive. It’s particularly bizarre given the other attempts to make Arthur’s ‘knights’ as diverse as possible, including Djimon Hounsou as Sir Bedivere and Tom Wu as the unfortunately named “Chinese George.”
Cinematographer John Mathieson (Logan) makes full use of Welsh and Scottish landscapes to fully realise the mysticism at the heart of the story. It’s unfortunate that it clashes so heavily with a style that Ritchie is a slave to. Quick-shots, rapid editing, and close-quartered chase sequences have Ritchie’s fingerprints all over them, but they don’t always fit easily with the narrative. For instance, for all the buildup to the power of Excalibur, it’s use is mostly a confusing maelstrom of carnage in which Arthur literally stands still as the bodies fall around him.
Ultimately KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is not a terrible movie, but like the climactic fight between warring CG creations, it is one that’s in conflict with itself. An origin story for a sequel that is unlikely to happen, it always feels as though it is building up to something that never eventuates.