Perhaps one of the most distinctive filmmakers working today, Guy Ritchie is often the real star of his projects, be that to their detriment or benefit. It’s that unique formula that has become somewhat polarizing to viewers. At this point, you either love Ritchie or you hate him, with not much gray area in which to operate, given just how defined his method is. Frenetic is probably the proper descriptive verbiage for Ritchie’s style. Montages, jump cuts, steady camera focus that transitions from scene to scene at a rapid pace. One thing to be said about him is that, while you may not always be invested, you are definitely never bored. The story of King Arthur certainly doesn’t seem like a great fit for such breakneck yarn spinning, but Ritchie ingratiates himself on this story, and makes something oddly original.
King Arthur: The Legend of The Sword, is not an adaptation of anything we have seen before. Ritchie wastes little time ensuring his audience that this is a demonstrably avant garde approach. While there is no singular iteration of the Arthurian mythos from which all versions are specifically derived, Ritchie still takes special care to really stamp himself on this tale. Taking bits and pieces of the legend from various tellings as he sees fit, the characters and the makeup are inherently familiar, yet alien all at once. The film opens in battle as Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) leads his kingdom against a dark and ominous mage by the name of Mordred. Wielding the great and powerful Excalibur, forged by Merlin, Uther is able to vanquish Mordred and his army of evil doers, led by 500 foot elephants, hurling boulders and transporting gaggles of soldiers. However, Uther is not able to oust the evil that lie beneath his own roof. His brother Vortigern (Jude Law), whom had trained under Mordred, has hatched an evil plan to overthrow the king. A plan that involves ritualistic sacrifice and ominous octopus witches. The bloody coup leads to the ultimate demise of Uther and his beautiful wife, as his son, Arthur, makes his escape on an unmanned schiff, where he is found and raised by the women of a brothel.
Fast forward 20 years, in the form of a montage, an adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) has ambitiously developed a small enterprise involving the bordello and various other underhanded dealings. He is eventually forced to camelot with thousands of other men that may be the right age range of the born king, to try and pull Excalibur from the stone. Arthur successfully liberates the sword from its resting place, much to the ire of Vortigern, who was told of the prophecy in which he meets his fate at the hands of the son of Uther. Arthur then escapes near death and is forced to reflect on his lineage and choose whether to lead the rebellion with the likes of Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), Goose Fat Bill (Aiden Gillen) and a mage sent by Merlin himself (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), or to run for the hills and forego reclaiming his birth right.
There is simply no questioning how evident Ritchies fingerprints are on this film. Electing to pass through several potentially longstanding sequences with montages instead of expository exchanges, Ritchie keeps the film lean and tight, even with a run time that eclipses two hours. The electric pacing becomes sporadic, and while the narrative structure is much more literal than metaphorical, the story can still be slightly difficult to follow if you’re not paying attention. There are so many details that are glossed over in these visual medleys, and there are no discernible moments to pause and draw breath, as Ritchie is relentless in his want to be expedient, which becomes distracting and wears thin as the story progresses. Not enough care was taken in the world building, which is a shame, because the world he’s developed is quite an a sight to see.
The films real strength is in it’s aesthetic. Compositionally speaking, Ritchie masterfully frames and textures this domain, and each set piece is as impressive as it’s predecessor. From a strictly visual perspective, this is Ritchie’s finest work. The world in which these characters reside is vast in scope and pale in color, but vibrant in detail. The digital effects are extraordinarily well integrated and the action is perfectly choreographed. This film boasts a graphic onslaught of well manicured battle sequences, and even though there is plenty of fantastical elements, nothing ever feels remotely farcical. The anxious editing style that has been prevalent in all this director’s previous efforts works well within the visual scope, and helps meld the animation with the practical, so that there is little disconnect.
The performances are all serviceable. Richie enlists some familiar faces. Hounsou and Gillen seem right at home in this environment and Hunnam fits the hero role quite nicely. Were it not for his recent work in The Lost City of Z, this would arguably be his finest performance to date. Jude Law is the stand out here. It’s amazing to see him look so comfortable as a villain when it seems we have never seen him accept that role before. Vortigern easily and surprisingly has the widest character arc of the bunch and Law is able to tap into an emotional wave length that is oddly alluring. It’s clear Vortigern is a man being undone by his malevolent ambition, but he still feels very conflicted about the sacrifices he has to make, to reach the heights he desires.
The narrative conceit of this film is what keeps this from greatness. Ritchie’s style is both a detriment and benefit here. There is so much more to this story and these characters that could have been explored and exploited, but it seems Ritchie was busy trying to stifle his own boredom, that he doesn’t do justice to his titular character. Washing the audience with chaotic pacing and an overabundance of detail oriented elements was an unwise decision. The eclectic sequences can be quite wearying, but one thing has to be said, this movie is exciting. The mythos that envelopes this story is blistering and amusing, the characters are all amiable and endearing and the illustrious effects are dazzling. Ritchie’s attempts to white knuckle his way through this story, does carry some ill effect, but this bombastic spectacle is probably the best variant of the Arthurian mythos since 1981’s Excalibur.