Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword begins with an assault on a castle featuring giant war elephants so plagiaristically familiar that I suspect the filmmakers will be hearing from Peter Jackson’s attorneys. They may have to get in line, however. The baby Arthur, son of the slain King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), is soon sent down the river, à la Moses, before being raised as a thief in “Londinium” like a medieval Artful Dodger. His principal antagonist, Vortigern (Jude Law) makes sacrifices to a wetly tentacled she-monster recalling Ursula the Sea Witch in order to be turned into a smoldering killer notably resembling a Balrog. There are creatures that could be accurately described as Rodents of Unusual Size and a giant snake that appears closely related to Voldemort’s Nagini. There’s even a flamboyant de-earing clearly intended to echo the one that takes place in Reservoir Dogs.
Which is all to say that virtually everything in director Ritchie’s film has been done before and done much better. The movie is a clumsy mishmash that rewrites the Arthur mythos in ways that seem largely random, seeking to survive scene by scene rather than offer any minimally coherent retelling or narrative theory. Worse, it is punctuated by overwrought, uninspired action sequences and set to a score so painfully neuron-fraying that, had it been available in the 1990s, the ATF might have used to sonically pummel the Branch Davidians.
Back around the turn of the century, Ritchie exploded upon the cinematic scene with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, a couple of fast, bloody caper films that reinvigorated the crime genre. But with the exception of his solid The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie of late has employed his frenetic style on projects for which it is emphatically unsuited, with two ill-advised Sherlock Holmes movies—I love Robert Downey Jr. as much as anyone, but casting him as Holmes was an act of cultural vandalism—and now the story of Arthur, king of the Britons. (You’ll have to forgive me: Throughout Ritchie’s movie, lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail kept bursting, unbidden, into my mind. When the Lady of the Lake made her inevitable appearance I literally strained to see whether her arm was “clad in the purest shimmering samite.”)
The plot, in brief—trust me, it’s best that way—is that Vortigern, Uther’s brother, kills the king in alliance with Mordred (who makes only a fleeting appearance) and seizes the throne for himself. After many years pass, Uther’s legendary sword Excalibur reappears, firmly embedded in its stone, and Vortigern forces all men of a certain age to try to pull it out in order to locate, and dispatch, Uther’s true heir.
That heir is, of course, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), who has risen from Londinium gutter-snipe to proprietor of his own brothel and would be quite content to continue in that role. But when his number is called, he inevitably pulls the sword from the stone—and, overwhelmed by its power, promptly passes out. (It’ll prove to be a while before he gets the hang of wielding it.) From there, it’s a largely tedious Good Rebels vs. Evil Empire struggle in which Arthur and his mates attempt to overthrow Vortigern before he builds a magic tower so tall that he will become invincible. (If this makes no sense to you, rest assured you’re not alone.)
As Arthur, Hunnam contributes further to the accumulating evidence—see: Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, and The Lost City of Z—that he is not in fact a movie star. (I don’t write this to be cruel: vanishingly few actors are.) As Vortigern, Law displays a hint of the louche malevolence he used to admirable effect in Dom Hemingway, though one has to wonder why the erstwhile Dr. Watson continues to accompany Ritchie on his rampage through the British canon.
Arthur’s principal allies are a former Merlin acolyte—no, the great wizard himself does not show up in this telling—referred to solely as “the mage” (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), wise former Uther companion Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), and “Goosefat” Bill Wilson (Aidan Gillen), so nicknamed for his knack for getting out of tight jams. Alas, the presence of Gillen (a.k.a. “Littlefinger”) and a cameo by Michael McElhatton (“Roose Bolton”) principally serve as reminders that one’s time would be better spent watching reruns of Game of Thrones.
And what of Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad, and the rest of the gang? They will have to wait. Remarkably, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was conceived as the first of a six-part(!) series of Arthur films. That’s right: In Ritchie’s hands, Arthur Pendragon may no longer be the iconic figure of myth and literature. But if moviegoers aren’t careful, he may yet prove to be a brand.
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