With the massive popularity enjoyed by HBO’s medieval fantasy saga Game of Thrones, a gritty reboot of the Arthurian legend was bound to come along sooner or later, and Warner Bros. made the seemingly inspired choice to tap Guy Ritchie for the job. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword reimagines the once and future monarch (Charlie Hunnam) as a smirking, streetwise hustler, the sort of rogue that would feel right at home in one of the gangster flicks that make up Ritchie’s most revered material, and this idea works far better than you might think.
Opening with a battle sequence that finds dark wizard Mordred storming Camelot with an army of war elephants that could have been borrowed from the Lord of the Rings series, the film wastes no time in establishing a scope that borders on ludicrous. Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) valiantly defends the walls of his stronghold and defeats the wizard with the power of Excalibur, a legendary blade that turns its master into a blue-eyed wraith of terrifying power. In the aftermath of the battle, Uther’s younger brother Vortigern (Jude Law) succumbs to the lure of the dark arts, dispatching a scythe-wielding specter to murder his brother’s family while he ascends the throne.
But young Arthur escapes, drifting downriver in a small vessel and coming to rest near a brothel in the crowded streets of Londinium. The ladies of the house take him under their wing, and as the years pass (in a series of stylish, rapid-fire edits) he grows from a shy, quiet boy into a muscular, smooth-talking scoundrel. Arthur and his pals Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Back Lack (Neil Maskell) have their hands in nearly every illegal endeavor the city has to offer, making the occasional payoff to the king’s menacing squads of “black legs” to operate unimpeded and lining their coffers with plenty of gold and silver.
If Ritchie’s film were focused solely on this charming band of miscreants, it would likely be an absolute knockout – but when you’re handed the keys to an absurdly ambitious six-film franchise, there are plenty of obligatory world-building items that need to be crossed off the list. Thus, we see Arthur pull the sword from its stone prison before a nameless mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and her cohorts spirit him away into the depths of the forest, where he learns of his true identity and the awesome power of Excalibur in a sequence that finds him facing off with flying beasts, giant serpents and murderous swamp rats, all of which are drenched in shadows that are no doubt intended to obscure the laughable, cringe-worthy CG of which they’re comprised.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is at its best during the smaller, character-driven moments, such as the meticulous plotting of an assassination attempt that finds Arthur, Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen) squabbling over the best vantage point for an archer to carry out his mission, or a brave performance by Back Lack and adolescent thief Blue (Bleu Landau) as they come face to face with the most terrifying and ruthless men in the kingdom. But there are fewer and fewer of these gems as the film barrels along toward its climactic encounter, which is nearly impossible to make sense of (an over-reliance on speed-ramping and frenetic camera work makes it feel more like a videogame cutscene than a pivotal narrative moment).
Hunnam turns in his best work yet as a leading man, and by the time the credits roll we’re genuinely invested in what Arthur’s future holds – particularly after glimpsing the beginnings of the Round Table. But the film’s box office prospects are dire, so unless overseas audiences turn out in droves, we may never get the opportunity to meet Lancelot, Guinevere and Merlin – which would be a shame, considering that for all of its flaws, Ritchie’s film offers quite a bit of fun if you’re willing to accept just how insane it is.
Guy Ritchie offers a gritty new take on the Arthurian legend that borrows inspiration from his London-based gangster flicks, but loses steam whenever it veers off into CG-laden battles with giant creatures and scythe-wielding smoke demons.