KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD
(2017, Guy Ritchie)
Guy Ritchie and his writing/producing partner Lionel Wigram revitalized the Sherlock Holmes brand for the modern era of filmmaking with their Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law duo of films, and then did the same thing for the criminally under appreciated The Man from U.N.C.L.E., genuinely one of my favorite tentpole films of the past decade, so it makes sense that they would be the guys to go to for a new take on the legend of King Arthur, and despite all of the red flags I was still looking forward to it. With Charlie Hunnam perfectly cast in the leading role, fresh off his phenomenal performance in last month’s The Lost City of Z, and Jude Law, hot off his scenery-devouring brilliance in The Young Pope, cast opposite him as the big bad villain Vortigern, this movie had a lot going for it. All of that said, the one thing it didn’t have going for it was the fact that no one was really asking for this movie to exist.
Sherlock Holmes is a brand that can be bent in a lot of different ways (as evidenced by the fact that both of those films and two different television series centered around the character have all existed within the past decade and been entirely successful), and hadn’t been seen on screen for a long time before Ritchie and Wigram delivered their take on it. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was adapted from a television show that aired decades ago and had very little, if any, familiarity for modern audiences, to such a point where it may as well have been an original movie by today’s standards. King Arthur, though? The mythos of this figure, of Merlin and the Knights of the Roundtable, has been told over and over again across decades, with very little variation.
Ritchie came into the picture wanting to bring a dark and gritty take on the character, which is exactly what we saw with Antoine Fuqua’s very unsuccessful Arthur film starring Clive Owen, which was DOA on screens just over a decade ago. With Game of Thrones taking over the world, it seems that studios were desperate to grab onto anything they can to try and take advantage of the hunger for that kind of audience, contorting anything to fit that brand. Even the Marvel universe picked up one of the show’s directors and tried to turn the second Thor movie into a Thrones-esque experience. That is transparently what we get with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a movie that’s about Arthur basically in name only. There’s an easter egg reference here and there to some other elements of the tried and true tale, but essentially this movie could have just been titled “We Want to Be Game of Thrones” and it would have gotten their message across more efficiently.
With that in mind, while I’ve really liked the way that Ritchie has transformed himself into this guy who does these great tentpole blockbusters out of seemingly random dormant brands, he’s definitely not someone who fits into the Game of Thrones style, and that’s very apparent from the start here. In those other movies, Ritchie did a great job of bending the source material to fit his particular style, creating films that are just oozing a stylistic flare and a genuine sense of fun and big screen entertainment. Here, however, his pulp sensibilities are just constantly slamming against a movie that the studio was clearly trying to turn into the Game of Thrones movie, and as a result it feels like two entirely different movies awkwardly forced into one another, turning it all into a total mess.
When Ritchie is able to just be himself he pulls together some genuinely good stuff in this movie. We start off with a prologue with an epic battle (which is where those giant elephants from the trailer come into play… and are never seen again) when Arthur is just a baby, showing how Vortigern betrays Arthur’s father, King Uther (Eric Bana), and takes the crown, with Arthur narrowly getting away thanks to his parents sending him off down the river. He’s picked up and raised in a brothel, shown in a very Ritchie-style montage as he grows up to be a street smart fighter running his own band of merry thugs. So for a while we follow these guys, as Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone, reunites with some old faces from his past, and is forced to accept his true lineage and prepare to bring war to Vortigern after he’s predictably given some more personal stakes to motivate him. Who doesn’t love the old trope of murdering one-dimensional female characters to motivate the heroic male into action?
All of the stuff in the middle of the film with Arthur and his band of hoodlums is classic Ritchie in the best way, just a ton of fun that I could have watched for the entire two hours of this film and been more than satisfied. The problem is that all of this stuff is so tonally and even in terms of genre opposed to what the studio wants this to be. In reality, these scenes feel more like they’d belong in a Robin Hood movie than a King Arthur one, although since Robin Hood is now getting another “dark and gritty” reboot after Ridley Scott’s dark and gritty reboot seven years ago I guess that’s not the case either. There’s some truly entertaining stuff in Legend of the Sword, but sadly the fact that there is anything good on display really ends up highlighting just how wildly bad the rest of the movie is, ranging from total bore to total mess. When things come back around to the inevitable battle between Arthur and Vortigern, we are hit with more and more of the supernatural element that pops up occasionally throughout the film in Vortigern’s scenes, and this aspect of the film is just absolutely bonkers. Never mind the fact that it totally clashes with the rest of the film, just on their own terms the scenes conceptually defy all manner of good taste.
There’s a scene with Vortigern near the beginning where he goes down into this cave beneath his castle and calls forth this giant squid looking creature that flops up out of the water and unravels its tentacles to reveal an obese woman living inside of it, as two of its tentacles fall out revealing themselves to be two eel like gorgeous women who swim around the water while Vortigern talks to the obese woman as if this is a totally normal thing that’s happening. There are genuinely no words that can properly describe the absolute insanity of this scene, a moment where in the theater I out loud shouted “WHAT” involuntarily and then had to look around to make sure everyone else was seeing what I was. It’s pretty much the biggest takeaway I had from the movie, but it’s not the only scene that defies reason. Even the big final battle ends up being like something out of God of War, where Hunnam and Law cease being humans that you can have some kind of investment in and literally become entirely CGI beings just swinging around their CGI weapons in a totally CGI environment and losing any kind of sense of stakes or foundation in human characters. It’s a real shame because Hunnam and Law are actually both quite good in the picture, creating a real hero and villain whose war with one another feels genuine and you want to see their final showdown happen, only for them to be replaced by computer effects when it actually does thanks to a studio that seemed determined to not let this movie work.
Ritchie does his best, but it feels like his vision is cut off at the knees by a studio forcing him to cater to their demands, and so the whole thing crumbles by having his sense of style awkwardly trying to exist inside a dull, totally nuts studio project. It’s very reminiscent of the feeling of watching Duncan Jones trying to make Warcraft work, or the Iron Man franchise bizarrely being turned into a half-baked Shane Black movie in its third entry. Which isn’t to say that Ritchie is entirely without fault, as he does ruin the big epic moment of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone by including an obnoxious David Beckham cameo right at that instant. He at least manages to make some of it work though, but he was fighting a losing battle from the start.