A companion of sorts to director Guy Ritchie’s glibly revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword updates a legendary English character with modern sensibilities that nonetheless betray a fondness for anachronisms native neither to the present nor the medieval past. In the opening sequence alone, an assault on Camelot features armored siege elephants right out of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, an unwieldy reference point that feels dated in 2017.
Ritchie also covers Arthur’s (Charlie Hunnam) backstory mostly in dizzying montage, quickly establishing his uncle Vortigern’s (Jude Law) betrayal of King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) before whipping through the orphaned prince’s exiled upbringing in a brothel. Ritchie is no stranger to rapid-fire montages, but the approach locks the film into the rhythms of one of his wisecracking crime movies, a pace ill-suited to a depiction of a time period we often associate with lumbering carts and soldiers weighed down by heavy armor.
If King Arthur is one of the earliest Western literary figures in what Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth,“4 this incarnation of the folkloric British leader has been reverse-engineered from the recent trends of brash, simultaneously selfless and self-involved heroes. He grows up to defend the prostitutes who raised him, regularly beating money out of johns who rough up his friends. But when Vortigern’s ongoing attempts to find and snuff out his nephew result in Arthur being discovered and coming into possession of Excalibur, the young man quickly begs off his responsibilities.
Part of what makes characters truly mythical is how well they endure and adapt to changing times, but this Arthur is comically reduced to a follower of fads. He picks up martial arts from a Chinese friend, George (Tom Wu), drops cynical quips like a third-rate Snake Plissken, and even sports a hell of a fade haircut. Hunnam’s brooding demeanor never conveys inner nobility, only the sort of reluctance to lead that so much contemporary, politically distrustful art sees as necessary moral proof of one’s ability to hold power. But without the underlying sense of wisdom and the desire to rule, Arthur simply comes across as feckless, someone who might replace his usurper uncle’s hunger for obedience with less draconian but nonetheless wasteful indifference.
Instead, Arthur’s intelligence fits purely within the “street-smart” rubric, best evidenced in Legend of the Sword’s most outwardly Ritchian scene, in which Arthur plays out an entire negotiation in hypothetical terms as the images show his detailed forecast of how a scheme will go. Those assembled, including Uther’s best knight, Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou, blessedly deviating from stock villainous roles with a stock heroic one), nod with respect at the man’s shrewd acumen, but in so many respects he resembles nothing more than a clever street urchin. And despite the would-be king’s lack of formal training, he too often bounds ahead of the advice and instruction of the many supporters who attempt to guide him, frequently negating the character’s core trait of equanimity in listening to the input of his advisers.
The simplification of the hero reverberates in the large but dull action sequences that dot the film. The use of bows and great two-handed swords necessarily limits the range of motion and speed in any given skirmish, but the true issue of the action scenes lies in Ritchie’s conflation of scale with imagination, resulting in numerous instances of murky, sloppily assembled images that all start to bleed together even when Arthur’s accompanying mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) enchants various beasts to aid in their fights. Close-ups of steel clanging against steel obliterate any sense of spatial relation, or even the sense of who has the upper hand in any fight. Even the story’s climax, fought while Arthur contends with hallucinogenic venom in his system, is rendered in pallid, desaturated colors and clumsy whip pans that track the movement of swords over the actions of people.
For all the attempts to update King Arthur to be cool and sexy, neither the character nor the film around him musters any spark. Ritchie is a filmmaker who prizes visual flash above all else, and yet Legend of the Sword is abundant in clumsy, ill-conceived images: A medium-close-up on the face of Arthur’s impaled mother (Poppy Delevingne) grimacing in pain leads straight into the title sequence, and there are at least four instances of the camera pulling back as a character screams in agony and rage. Scarcely anything fits together, and when the film ends with a complex, exactingly designed round table in the middle of construction, it stands as a fitting symbol of an elegant, egalitarian myth made lopsided and unnecessarily muddled.