During the opening moments of Guy Ritchie’s frantic, sloppy fantasy-babble epic King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, viewers may wonder whether the theater somehow got the reels out of order. In an age of digital presentation, that shouldn’t be possible. But it’s otherwise hard to explain why the movie opens so abruptly, with an epic-scale battle that appears to be the climax either of Peter Jackson’s Return Of The King, or of a film adaptation of Shadow Of The Colossus.
Audiences remotely familiar with the King Arthur myth will certainly be surprised to see King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) throwing down against the “sorcerer-mage” Mordred (Rob Knighton) in the first few minutes of the film. Bringing in King Arthur’s final villain a generation early, and turning him into a cadaverous CGI demon who commands a Lord Of The Rings-esque army of city-block-sized elephants, is certainly an announcement of intent. Ritchie is out to mix and match elements of the legend, ramping the story up to outsized levels and cramming in as much computer-animated violence as possible. By comparison, the sped-up style he brought to his versions of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Sherlock Holmes seems staid; this is next-generation-level sped-up storytelling, aimed at the most overcaffeinated, impatient members of the audience. Certainly no one walking into King Arthur should be expected to sit still for petty explanations of who’s fighting, or why. It’s enough that Uther and Mordred both have glowing eyes and final-boss-battle moves, and that things are exploding even before it’s clear what those things are.
That approach stretches throughout most of the film. The first 30 minutes play like a “previously on Game Of Thrones” intro segment summarizing three seasons of action into a hyper-compressed violence collage. Ritchie and his co-writers (previous partner Lionel Wagram and Awake writer-director Joby Harold) lay out some 20 minutes of violent action before slowing down enough to make it clear what’s actually going on. They never actually explain what mages are, what they want, or where they get their powers. But they do say that mages and humans used to live together in peace, until Mordred tried to take over England. King Uther fights to defeat them, but after the climactic battle against Mordred, he wants to return to the peaceful status quo. His brother Vortigern (Jude Law) disagrees, and stages a coup to take over Britain and wipe out mages for good. The only other survivor of the Pendragon bloodline is Uther’s young son Arthur, who winds up being raised in a brothel in the grubby Roman settlement of Londinium.
Excalibur lights up like a lightsaber, and occasionally grants people superpowers
Ritchie zips past an impressionistic version of the boy’s childhood — a whisked-together blur of physical abuse, childhood scheming, and fight lessons — and lands at a point where Arthur has become a streetwise, frequently shirtless Charlie Hunnam. As an adult, he’s haunted by nightmares of his father’s last stand, without understanding what they are. Meanwhile, Vortigern has become a creepy, preening tyrant, prone to plummy speeches about the pleasures of being feared. Eventually, he comes looking for Arthur. As the “Born King,” the rightful Pendragon heir, Arthur is only other person who can control Excalibur, here re-imagined as an obscurely magical plot device that periodically lights up blue like a lightsaber, and occasionally grants its user superpowers. And then, as Arthur is unwillingly dragged out of his street life and into the fight, King Arthur becomes a reluctant-hero story, about a kid from the gutter being ordered to fight a series of frenetic, kingdom-shaking fights involving hordes of faceless baddies and even more CGI monsters.
The “punk kid from the cobblestone streets is over his head in a big adventure” conceit fits naturally into Guy Ritchie’s aesthetic, which is frequently about ultra-competent but overmatched men stumbling through an immense crisis. But the criminal-class bro-fests of his Snatch and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels merge awkwardly with the fantasy tropes at work here. Conceptually and tonally, King Arthur is all over the fantasy-book frontispiece map. The battles involve ’roided-up, muscular warriors leaping through the air in slow motion, 300-style. Scenes where nameless mage Astrid Bergès-Frisbey taps into her animal-controlling powers feel more indebted to Ladyhawke’s dreamy magic-and-the-wilds rawness. Uther and Arthur’s ultimate magical enemy is a horn-helmeted barbarian behemoth straight out of Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer paintings, but Arthur’s scheming crew of anti-Vortigern rebels feels more like a down-to-earth intrigue cabal stolen from Game Of Thrones. (Aidan Gillen, now Hollywood’s go-to guy to play sneering fantasy schemers, backs that impression up by basically reprising Littlefinger here.)
This is a weird greatest-hits collection of fantasy-movie fragments
And none of the fantasy tropes prevent Ritchie from diving head-first back into his familiar banter-heavy London-underworld riffs, where Arthur and his brothel buddies (Kingsley Ben-Adir and Neil Maskell) tell stories like they’re dueling to see who can spit out the most irrelevant interruptions in the most aggressive way. Ritchie plays with pacing and chronology throughout King Arthur, having Hunnam telling stories in voiceover as they comedically play out onscreen, à la Drunk History, or building the plot’s forward movement around callbacks and flashbacks, repetition and hastily built inside jokes. It’s a dizzying approach to narrative, with the writers expecting the audience to keep up as the movie shifts midstream from a what-will-happen planning session into a that-just-happened recap.
But Ritchie and his writers don’t give viewers enough reason to want to keep up, unless they’re fully satisfied with the kind of slapdash episodic fantasy combat that made movies like the Clash Of The Titans remake and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters feel so repetitive. One badly botched central setpiece sums up everything wrong with the movie: When Arthur can’t fully harness Excalibur’s powers (more or less because he hasn’t finished his Jedi training, or really even started it), Bergès-Frisbey’s mage character says “He needs to go to the Darklands.” What are the Darklands, and why does he need to go? The script doesn’t care. Uther’s old ally Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) tells the mage, “That’s not happening.” One Gilligan Cut later, Bedivere welcomes Arthur to the Darklands, where he faces a two-minute gauntlet of giant bats, rats, and snakes in order to get to an arbitrary place where Excalibur can light up… and give him the same flashback he’s already experienced multiple times. “Lazy” doesn’t cover this kind of hapless, apathetic storytelling. “Parodic” comes closest.
Where fantasy history meets Drunk History
King Arthur has problems other than its spastic pacing and its wild jerks from pathos and pain to revved-up goofy comedy. It’s certainly noticeable that its most important woman doesn’t even get a character name, and most of the rest of the notable female cast members are literal monsters, or are murdered onscreen to make the film’s endless series of tough men a little sadder, angrier, and tougher. It’s just as noticeable that too much of the story revolves around concealing information from the audience, not for the purpose of dramatic reveals, but to stretch out the action more awkwardly. And when exposition does arrive, it often arrives in nonsensical aphorisms, like “When there’s poison, there’s a remedy.”
But King Arthur also has its strengths, largely in the operatic emotions. Once in a while, Ritchie actually stops to take a breath and give the characters time to feel their mortality. And as they consider the threats piling up against them, they finally start to feel human, and like heroes instead of punchlines. One grim scene, where Arthur tries to shepherd his friends to safety and they insist on staying behind to protect him, catches the balance that the rest of the film lacks. It uses humor as actual people use it — to undercut a heavy moment, to deflect discomfort, to communicate feelings that are otherwise hard to express — and it brings across the characters’ courage and devotion to a cause in a way no speed-blurred montage of monster fights could convey. King Arthur has a vulnerable heart beating somewhere under all the grimy, sweaty muscles lovingly displayed for the camera. It’s just buried too often under narrative chaos, and the inexplicable ideal that if a story runs at double speed and triple energy, the gaping holes in the story will outpace anyone’s notice.