Guy Ritchie is his own worst enemy. He’s not a terrible director, he knows how to film an adrenaline-pumping action scene. But his movies are so overwhelmingly stylized that any artistic merits his films have are mostly drowned out by all the weird stuff he piles on top, and his latest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is no exception.
On the one hand, you almost have to admire the guy (so to speak). Ritchie clearly has a way of making movies that he likes, and he sticks to his guns. But the fatal flaw with this approach is its hubris: Ritchie doesn’t seem to realize that just because he thinks something is cool, doesn’t mean everyone who watches his movies will think so too. Never is this more apparent than with his take on the King Arthur myth, which is hands-down the most aggressively bizarre cinematic experience I’ve had all year. Heck, maybe ever.
Here are just a few of the weird and/or crazy things in this movie. Giant animals (bats, rats, snakes, elephants, wolves, eagles). Demonic hell knights. Tentacle…witches, I guess? People with cockney gangster names like Goose Fat Bill and Flat Nose Mike. Slow-mo swordfights. Hyperactive, spastic editing. A completely bonkers plot. Nary a shred of plot cohesion or character development. In short, it’s a mess, a $175 million wannabe blockbuster that is the first major flop of the year, earning a paltry $15 million domestically in its opening weekend.
So what’s the plot, such as it is? Well, the movie opens with a battle scene featuring the aforementioned giant elephants, which are more akin to the huge elephant creatures in The Lord of the Rings than actual elephants. Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon defeats the elephants and the army accompanying them by killing their leader, a mage named Mordred, with the mystical powers of the sword Excalibur. And if you read that and thought to yourself, “Wait a minute, Mordred wasn’t a mage, he was the product of Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister,” then you would be right. This is the first sign that Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have little to no resemblance to previous versions of the story.
Following this, Uther’s devious brother Vortigern stages a coup, and Uther and his wife are killed by a demonic-looking knight with a skull face, flaming cape, and double-bladed scythe. This guy looks like something from the cover of a heavy metal album, or maybe a Dark Souls boss. During his father’s battle with the Dark Souls boss, young Arthur gets in a boat which floats away, Moses-like, down the river where he eventually is found and taken in by prostitutes. There follows a rapid-fire montage of Arthur growing up rough in the streets of “Londinium” (was there ever such a place?), being raised by prostitutes, learning to fight and getting punched in the face a lot. As one might imagine, being raised in a brothel and getting face-punched a lot turns Arthur into a tough, scrappy adult. He is eventually forced to flee Londinium, ends up drawing Excalibur from the stone, and joins the resistance against the evil king Vortigern.
This is definitely a fantasy movie, and is not intended to be historically accurate. That much is apparent from the very first scene, and I’m fine with that. The movie doesn’t pretend to be “Based on a True Story” or anything like that, which is good because if it did claim to be based on a true story that would obviously be nonsense. I’m still annoyed that the 2003 King Arthur movie had the audacity to claim it was “The Untold True Story Behind the Legend” when it was nothing of the kind.
And I’m fine with this being a fantasy movie, because King Arthur stories have many elements of magic and mysticism. The problem with the fantasy elements in Ritchie’s film is that they make no sense. For example, Vortigern has this weird cavern under his tower. When we first see the cavern, a mass of tentacles emerges from the water, which unravel to reveal three women. Two of them are kinda hot, the third is massively fat. What the hell are these things? I guess they’re witches of some kind? The movie never explains what these things are, and they end up feeling arbitrary.
This is a movie where things just kind of…happen. There’s no real sense of conflict, and the supporting characters, despite being played by capable actors, are underdeveloped. Jude Law makes for a fun bad guy as Vortigern, and Charlie Hunnam is a charismatic Arthur. But despite having two good lead actors, the movie never really sells the rivalry between them. It also doesn’t help that Vortigern has to be at least 20 years older than Arthur, but Law doesn’t look much older than Hunnam at all. This could be because Hunnam is 37 and Law is 44. But aside from this discrepancy, the movie never gives a reason to care about the story. I like Hunnam as an actor and I liked his portrayal of Arthur, but I wasn’t invested in the story.
The movie also has editing issues. You’ve probably seen movies where people talk about doing something, then the movie cuts to the people doing the thing they’re talking about, then it cuts to them talking, then doing, and so on. This can be an effective technique when used properly. Think of a heist film, where we see the heist being planned out and executed step-by-step. This is good because it helps the viewer understand what’s going on, but Ritchie uses this editing technique when there’s really no need to, and as a result parts of the film are unnecessarily choppy.
I don’t hate this movie. It’s a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one, and it’s so full of crazy that it’s never boring. The acting is solid, the photography and special effects are good, and there are some fun action sequences. But ultimately it’s baffling. I would put this movie right up there with The Lone Ranger and Suicide Squad as one of the most bizarre blockbusters I’ve ever seen. But at least it’s more playful than other dour swords-and-sandals epics, such as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood or Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is a work of vision, even if it just so happens to be a completely demented vision.