by Benjamín Harguindey
You could break down Guy Ritchie’s career as both writer and director in two perfect halves. You have the comedy gangsta flicks that put him on the scene, and then you have his Warner Bros. tenure beginning with RDJ vehicle Sherlock Holmes (2009), its prissy 2011 sequel and the lackluster 2015 adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Now comes King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, ostensibly another studio gig, really an attempt by Ritchie to have his cake and eat it too.
You’d be forgiven for going to a movie titled “King Arthur” and expecting to see something about the legendary ruler. Instead we get a Guy Ritchie gangsta flick in period clothes, and the period clothes look like they’ve been pilfered from a nearby Abercrombie & Fitch. We get characters with Dick Tracy-esque names like “Goosefat Bill” and David Beckham as one “Trigger”. We get thuggish bravado for wit, and that MTV style of quick-cutting that plays real dandy in Snatch. (2000) but looks incredibly tacky on a fantasy landscape.
Our Arthur is played by Charlie Hunnam as a mirthless brute, whose first scene has him shadowboxing in his pants and screaming in generic rage, sort of like a ripped Johnny Quid. The orphaned child of King Uther (Eric Bana), he’s been raised in a brothel in Londinium and become the leader of a street gang with members such as “Backlack” and “Wetstick”. You know the movie isn’t much for history because Arthur is also friends with George, the senpai of a martial arts dojo in 5th century England.
For that matter there’s the opening battle scene, in which “mages” reenact the Siege of Gondor on Camelot, mûmakil et al. The first act is actually one of the more palatable moments of the movie, when it can still pass for a costumed epic. The night after said battle Uther’s scheming brother Vortigern (Jude Law) stages a coup in order to usurp the crown. Arthur is left to drift Moses-style down the Thames until he’s taken in by the local brothel. Interesting that this isn’t just replicating the Superman origin myth but also playing with the bizarro notion of what would happen if Superman landed somewhere disreputable?
In any case Arthur ends up a prisoner of the tyrant Vortigern and forced to brand himself by gripping the fiery Excalibur; only he manages to pull it out, revealing his identity not just to his uncle but to himself. He’s then sprung out by a group of rebels, informed of a prophecy (never go out without one) and set on his way to avenging his family while reclaiming the kingdom. You know the drill from that one book by Joseph Campbell, but why does it take over an hour to make Arthur quit his whining and accept the hero’s calling?
This is a very, very long movie that takes its sweet time to tick every checkpoint. Arthur routinely rejects the path he’s obviously going to take anyway. He’s routinely visited by visions of his father’s last moments, which appear to be leading to a big reveal but don’t really. There is an extended sequence in which one of his cohorts, either Backlack or Wetstick, is in peril of death and the way the movie treats it you’d think you’re supposed to care. In another similar scene, a villain is randomly, portentously introduced near the end, only to discard him by the following scene. There is a lot of random build up, all much ado about nothing.
As for Ritchie’s signature editing style: as stated above, it works within the context of a snappy tall tale like Snatch. or RocknRolla (2008), where you’re supposed to lose yourself to the convoluted mess anyway. But in something as classical as arthurian legend, it completely misses its mark. Rather than let each scene play out, they’re summarized obnoxiously in the vein of music video montages and with pointless intercutting, none of which does any service to such a straightforward story.
A better project for Guy Ritchie, if he absolutely had to tackle medieval fantasy England, would’ve been to retell the tale of Robin Hood. Many scenes and characters from this movie are redolent of the Merry Men anyway, what with the rebel thieves hiding and plotting deep in the woods, undermining the King’s tyranny with strategic acts of sabotage (via montage, natch) and displaying some remarkable feats of archery. The jocular tone and themes of camaraderie would be right up Ritchie’s alley. And it’d spare us the inevitable “King Arthur: When RocknRolla Lancelot Snatched Guinever Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).