Editor’s Note: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens in wide theatrical release today, May 12, 2017
After King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie’s latest attempt, doomed to kickstart another franchise (see, e.g., Sherlock Holmes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), it might be time to retire the “Chosen One”/Hero’s Journey formula once and for all. Hollywood won’t, of course, not as long as moviegoers are willing to look beyond – or maybe re-embrace – the same tired, stale clichés of the “Chosen One” formula and turn another effects-heavy hero’s journey into another box-office hit. Not content to offer up another straight or semi-straight retelling of the Arthurian legend, Ritchie turns King Arthur: Legend of the Sword into a bizarre, idiosyncratic hybrid of displaced, anachronistic Brit gangsters (Snatch, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) and an amped-up, steroidal Lord of the Rings/Gladiator knock-off crammed with crudely animated, videogame-quality action scenes. It’s even worse than it sounds.
Despite multiple setbacks, Ritchie remains an ambitious filmmaker, albeit of the commercial kind; art and artistry are secondary concerns when they’re concerns at all. He wants to turn King Arthur: Legend of the Sword into another franchise, the first film in a proposed six-film series.
We first meet the titular hero first as a wide-eyed three-year-old, silently witnessing the betrayal of his father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), the “rightful” king of Camelot, by Uther’s malignant younger brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), a powerful sorcerer in his own right. Arthur escapes with his life, but leaves the magically empowered super-sword, Excalibur, behind, permanently locked inside a stone until such time as an adult Arthur attempts to reclaim his birthright. As Arthur ages from three to thirty in one of Ritchie’s typically hyper-stylized, hyperkinetic montages, Vortigern plots Arthur’s elimination. Raised in the mean streets of Londinium, Arthur has little interest in ruling a kingdom, let alone fighting for one, regardless of his uncle’s despotic reign (reluctant “hero’s journey” alert). He’s content running the brothel where he grew up, protecting the sex workers from harm or obtaining compensation by any means necessary when they’re roughed up by their customers or otherwise amassing a small fortune via various, unspecified grifts and cons.
After King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it might be time to retire the “Chosen One”/Hero’s Journey formula once and for all. Hollywood won’t, of course, not as long as moviegoers are willing to look beyond – or maybe re-embrace – the same tired, stale clichés of the formula.
Eventually, of course, Arthur comes face-to-face with dark shadow/mirror-self, Vortigern. Captured by the illegitimate king’s men and returned to Camelot along with a shipload of men Arthur’s approximate age, Arthur surprises everyone, including himself, when he removes the super-sword from the stone. Vortigern acts swiftly, setting up Arthur’s public humiliation and execution almost immediately to quell the growing rebellion against his dictatorial rule. Arthur survives his first encounter with his uncle, but that’s only the first part of his journey. To return and reclaim his throne, Arthur has to go through the usual trials and tribulations typical of Joseph Campbell’s heroes. He has to lose before he can win. He has to overcome his personal and real-world demons before he can face Vortigern one last time. Arthur gets the usual hand up and multiple pep talks from an older, wearier mentor figure, Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), and a sorceress (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and potential romantic interest known only as the Mage. (Merlin gets a shout-out early on, but doesn’t make an appearance.)
Despite her magical powers, the Mage often sits back and does little or nothing, waiting for the opportune time (i.e., when Arthur and his men are about to lose) before stepping in and saving the day. That transparent tactic serves an extra-narrative purpose: It gives Ritchie the opportunity, if not the excuse story logic demands, to stage loud, over-busy, over-choreographed set pieces involving men and materiel. Ritchie descends to new lows when Arthur learns to activate Excalibur. It’s not far from Quicksilver (Marvel/Fox) or the Flash’s (DC) superpower: Excalibur essentially gives Arthur the temporary ability to radically slow down or manipulate the time, making it a virtual breeze to mow down Vortigern’s men with minimal effort.
Despite multiple setbacks, Ritchie remains an ambitious filmmaker, albeit of the commercial kind (art and artistry are secondary concerns when they’re concerns at all). Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows’ underperformance six years ago and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s failure two years ago hasn’t stopped Ritchie from thinking franchise. He wants to turn King Arthur: Legend of the Sword into another franchise, the first film in a proposed six-film series. But that depends on a combination of premise, execution, and the face of the franchise. Hunnam delivers a more than adequate performance as the titular thug-king, but he lacks the dynamic range, depth, or energy of a Robert Downey Jr. To be fair, Downey Jr. is a rare commodity. Minus an actor with Downey Jr.’s charisma or star power or a novel, original spin on an oft-told story, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has to rely primarily on Ritchie’s direction to succeed on any level. It doesn’t. For all of his hyperkinetic editing, hyper-stylized visuals, and hypertrophied masculinity, Ritchie can’t elevate beyond disposable, time-wasting entertainment.
For all of his hyperkinetic editing, hyper-stylized visuals, and hypertrophied masculinity, director Guy Ritchie can’t elevate King Arthur: Legend of the Sword beyond disposable, time-wasting entertainment.