Charlie Hunnam in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
At several different points in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a Merlin stand-in known only as the Mage asks our titular sword-bearer, “Did you see everything you needed to see?” It’s an awkward line of dialogue that sounds more like script notes than Ritchie’s signature babble, a meta-commentary on the plodding, utterly predictable, flashback-oriented origin story the film’s supposedly telling. Did the irreverent hero initially turn down his destiny? Did he go through a transformative trial in some dark netherworld? Did his mom die? Did a whole brothel full of prostitutes die? Did you see everything you need to see?
If these weren’t all checklist items lifted from a water-stained copy of Robert McKee’s Story rescued from a crate outside an East Hollywood bungalow, I’d be impressed with myself for remembering all of them. Because as studiously as the film regurgitates a familiar set of plot points, the desperately ADD editing, the Guy Ritchieness of it all, pushes it into incomprehensibility. This is the kind of stuff people ding directors like Baz Luhrmann for, but Luhrmann’s work, even at its loopiest, has a kind of emotional availability that is completely missing here. At its worst, King Arthur is — there’s no other way to put this — dorky. You are embarrassed for this film, like the kid who showed up to the first day at a new school wearing parachute pants.
Here’s the best I can do for the plot: Baby Arthur’s father (Eric Bana) is king, but is betrayed and usurped by his evil brother, Jude Law. Baby Arthur becomes Grown Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a ripped fighter with a rude ’tude who lives in a brothel, where he has been raised by his surrogate mother, Prostitutes. (Don’t ask me to name a significant individual prostitute, they are a bunch of them and they are all good, don’t worry about them.) Meanwhile, Jude Law is frustrated because there’s a sword in a stone and he can’t get it out, since he’s not the rightful heir to the throne. So he sets out to find Arthur, ostensibly to kill him and inherit his sword-pulling rights. But when he does find him, he decides not to kill him, I guess so that the movie can keep going. Arthur doesn’t want to fight, but then Jude Law kills Prostitutes, so he has to have his revenge. For some reason, Jude Law lets Arthur go form a squad so that they can eventually fight in a more climactic manner. And so on until we reach the two-hour mark.
King Arthur is guilty of many blockbuster sins critics have taken it upon themselves to call out over the last decade. And yet, seeing a version of them this derivative and dumb, with neither CGI grandeur nor a sense of fun on its side, is like a splash of cold water in the face, a reminder of how bad things can be when nobody cares. It feels retro — the kind of thing movies barely got away with in 2007. To be fair, Ritchie doing his thing in a kind of anachronistic Knight’s Tale–style fantasy epic is not the biggest leap on paper. I’ve never been a particular fan of his sensibility, but at least it was functional in the Sherlock Holmes movies. Here the “lads up to no good” vibe is both inconsistent and poorly executed: Hunnam’s Arthur tries so hard to be not your father’s King Arthur without trying to be anything — charming or identifiably human, for instance.
But the film’s biggest problem is Ritchie’s twitchy edit finger, the perpetual enemy of silence and stillness. In particular, the heist-setup conceits are what ultimately unravel the film: After a certain number of scenes in which characters describe what they’re going to do intercut with scenes of them actually doing it, time goes out the window and we no longer know what we are watching. The film is boring, not because nothing happens, but because everything that does happen is put through a narrative blender.
By the third act, when it goes off the rails and becomes a fully CGI monstrosity (a giant snake shows up, and Arthur fights a flaming skeleton) it’s finally clear: King Arthur is a video-game movie in disguise, for the worst type of video-game fans. And if you dare decry it as unpleasant or incoherent, someone on the internet will come out of the woodwork to tell you to calm down, it’s just mindless entertainment. King Arthur is an absolute mess, but at least by the end you can tell who the mess is for.