Who needed a new King Arthur movie? OK: me. This is a story that’s been told countless times — in epic verse, on the opera stage, on television, and, as of this week, in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the latest Guy Ritchie movie. I’m still not sick of this fantastical old story, even after seeing the latter. More swords, more stones, and more roundtables, please. Just not directed by Guy Ritchie.
The movie gets off to a fun, if not overly promising start. In a moody, surreal prologue, Arthur’s father, King Uther (Eric Bana), is overtaken by Arthur’s uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law), who schemes to steal the throne. Vortigern is as snaky and nefarious as the casting of the Young Pope implies. He’s willing to go so far as to spill the blood of loved ones — his wife, his daughter — in order, with the help of dark magic, to amass great power. It works. Vortigern gets everything he wants — except the respect of his subjects. And as he rises in power and influence, so too does the abandoned Arthur, albeit under humbler conditions. Sent downriver by his father just before Vortigern’s attack, Arthur winds up being raised in a brothel, tending to the women when they get their faces worn in by Viking brutes, and craftily finding ways to drum up money. He learns the ways of the streets, Ritchie-style: in a frantic fast-forward that collapses all the years of his childhood into mere minutes. One minute he’s a dweebish kid; the next minute, he’s Charlie Hunnam, fighting machine.
Not that Arthur knows how powerful he is yet. Like every other man his age in Vortigern’s kingdom, he still has to take a shot at pulling Uther’s sword from the stone, proving he’s the true heir to the throne and thus Vortigern’s greatest threat. It’s familiar, even when it isn’t: Ritchie’s take on the King Arthur legend is just this side of traditional. Instead of Merlin, there’s a coy, powerful Mage (played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). Instead of knights, there are the men Arthur came up with on the streets. The money shot — Arthur pulling the sword from the stone with ease — is business as usual, except it also features a David Beckham cameo.
These aren’t radical revisions, merely adjustments that suit Ritchie’s style and interests. He is, as always, a lover of meaty dialogue. And in King Arthur’s best moments, Ritchie employs his familiarly chatty, convoluted storytelling shtick, merging one scene with the next, and enlivening what would otherwise be predictable exposition with a rollicking sense of adventure. There’s a reason we sit around and brag and tell each other stories, and Ritchie’s best instinct as a director has always been to emphasize that. The logic of his movies has always felt rhetorical: They feel like stories his characters are telling about themselves, and accordingly distorted to match their egos. King Arthur occasionally feels more dramatic and dense than it should, for just that reason — and for a story practically scripted into our cultural DNA, that’s a good thing.
It’s to Ritchie’s credit that he can make stale material feel like his own, even if he can’t make it fresh. It’s an indication that his shift away from his earlier grimy crime movies, like Snatch, to more recent, bigger Hollywood fare hasn’t yet entailed sacrificing his directing strengths. There’s something enjoyably rough-and-tumble about Ritchie’s approach to Sherlock Holmes, and even King Arthur: lending the Ritchie touch to fairly routine studio properties has a curious effect. You get your Sherlock, but reimagined as more of a wiseass street hood than you might have bargained for. You get your The Man from U.N.C.L.E. reboot, and it feels like a vintage copy of Esquire has come alive on the big screen.
Occasionally, King Arthur is just as good. At its gregarious best, it feels like a lesson in how not to make your medieval fantasy feel like an episode of Game of Thrones. (Key takeaways: stylize the exposition; have a sense of humor; hire Jude Law.) The problem is, Ritchie can’t escape the material. And in trying to subvert it, he forgets what was so good about it to begin with. When Vortigern and Arthur finally meet, Vortigern asks, "What kind of man would you have become had you inherited your father’s kingdom?" That’s a legitimate question with an intriguing range of answers; problem is, watching Ritchie’s movie, you don’t really care.
That’s a little bit the fault of the otherwise talented Hunnam, whose chiseled, cheekbone-core acting is too subtle to make a mark here. He doesn’t disappear into the role so much as just disappear. Ditto to Law, who’s always fun to watch get weird, but whose role is a little too rote, a little too Villain of the Week, for the actor to find his way. Most of the fault, though, lies with Ritchie, who finds a way to revel in his own style despite (for him) a new kind of story, but who never quite finds a way to keep us invested. The movie is already predicted to be a flop, and it certainly hasn’t fared well with critics so far. The King Arthur legend has almost everything a story needs to tempt us out to the theater, but it might take more than the whiz-bang theatrics of Guy Ritchie to actually get us there.