Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword makes Zack Snyder seem cerebral and understated by comparison. Which is a weird thing to find myself saying about Ritchie, whose last movie (the criminally underrated Man From U.N.C.L.E.) was the best Bond movie in a decade in everything but name, and who seems to be on the verge of becoming great with every other movie he makes. This one though, not so much.
U.N.C.L.E. is picturesque and sun-drenched where King Arthur is like trying to find a dive bar toilet wearing dark sunglasses, a quality exacerbated by the screen-darkening 3-D. (We critics don’t get a choice of 3-D or 2-D, but I would definitely have voted 2-D.) Being able to actually see what’s going on seems like a good base requirement for quality, but King Arthur‘s problems go deeper than that.
I have a feeling the way that this got made was that some producers (King Arthur executive producer and current treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin among them) thought they could ride Game of Thrones‘ dragon tail using King Arthur, which is also a story of knights and wizards, and has the added benefit of being public domain — i.e., no need to pay royalties to some author. So they brought on Guy Ritchie, who didn’t really care so long as he could add speed ramping, choppy edits, and some blokes acting brash (David Beckham cameos, because England, I guess). He certainly didn’t spend much energy making sense of the story.
Which is a shame, because one of the best things about Game of Thrones is that, despite being about witches and blood magic and swordfighting, it dispenses with the usual yadda yadda about good and evil and darkness and light and destiny and birthright. There are bloodlines, sure, and the rabble occasionally goes along with all that crap about noble births and divine right, but you can never predict the outcome of a conflict based on whose daddy was more famous. For all its supernatural elements, it’s brutally realistic about power struggles — more about realpolitik than hocus pocus.
Guy Ritchie doesn’t do much to explain or justify the underlying Arthurian myths, and as such we’re expected to root for Arthur Pendragon (Charlie Hunnam) largely because, as Monty Python would’ve put it, some watery tart threw a sword at him. Which is to say, Arthur is the “good” guy because he’s a Pendragon and Vortigern (Jude Law) killed his father (harsh). And Vortigern is the “bad” guy because evil music plays when he’s on screen and he gives lots of sneering monologues about how power makes his dick hard (also the killing people thing). It’s the old “This guy is good because I said so while this other guy is bad because I said so. I shall now mash them against each other like G.I. Joes, pew pew!”
I get it: Guy Ritchie didn’t care so much about the narrative, he just wanted to film some cool knight shit and maybe add some stuff he likes along the way — David Beckham, working class Brits doing underworldy stuff, martial arts (besides a kung fu master there’s a guy with a cauliflower ear who armbars one of the bad guys), a multicultural vision of England. But if the draw here is the vibe and production design, it only works out about half of the time. Vortigen shows up to a mass execution in a very cool eagle-clasp fur cape, and I can always watch Jude Law sneer, but otherwise this vision of Arthur (who ruled in the 5th and 6th centuries, according to legend) seems to involve an inordinate number of popped collars and leather trousers. I dunno, man. It’s hard to be wowed by medieval badassery when the magical knights are wearing pants and t-shirts.
There’s also a problem of execution. Game of Thrones has a nice way of easing you into the magic stuff, and also historical justification for the supernatural — ghosts and witches exist in their world because people in the Middle Ages believed in them. It’s a kind of subjective realism. In King Arthur, the first scene is Camelot on the verge of destruction by Godzilla-sized elephants carrying hotel-sized siege engines full of Mordred’s (Rob Knigthon) army on their backs, with Mordred controlling them using his mage skills. Which are basically the same as warg skills on Game of Thrones, only the mages’ eyes turn black when they control an animal instead of white. Anyway, it goes from zero to 100 (100 being a world where… uh… giant elephants exist, I guess?) in a split second.
There’s a lot more magic and CGI in this world, okay, fine, the giant elephants were a giveaway, but even once you’ve accepted that, every battle seems to be decided by a combination of destiny and deus ex magicas. (That’s the old Lord of the Rings trick where a battle goes on for 20 minutes and then just when the good guys are about to be defeated, Gandalf manifests a giant eagle who eats all the orcs or something.) The problem isn’t that it’s silly. We’ve accepted the silliness. The problem is that it’s boring. If the outcomes are predetermined by destiny, what’s the point of the fight? Even the Bible knew that a narrative world without freedom of choice is boring. King Arthur is a lot of magic vs. magic. (There’s a sub-plot involving Vortigen and the Vikings that would’ve made a much more interesting movie, possibly because it wouldn’t involve Hunnam.)
Another issue King Arthur has is that brashness always seems to solve everything. Which is to say, if you see the main character acting cocky and launching into a “Let me tell you wot, mate” monologue, it’s a safe bet that that monologue is going to be intercut with him doing something badass and winning the day. It’s basically the same trick Ritchie pulled in Sherlock Holmes, only Sherlock being a know-it-all makes more sense than King Arthur being one, and Robert Downey Jr. brings a pathos to his bravado (that twinkle in his eye that says this might be a put on) that Charlie Hunnam just can’t. In Sherlock, cockiness was the prestige. Here it just makes you wonder if Ritchie really does think you can manifest good things through positive thinking, as any pick-up artist or self-help business demagogue will tell you. Oi, gavver round, conts, I’s goin’ ta tew yous ‘ow da worl works.
And so we basically get an unparsed ancient legend with some contemporary flourishes grafted onto it, about half of which will look dated in a year if they don’t already. (Enough with the dimly lit stuff already, especially if the thing is meant to be in 3D.) Eh? Eh.