You know those later career Led Zeppelin songs that were 12 minutes long, featured a million different sections, and were about some sort of fantastical something that was nigh indecipherable… but because the band hit so hard and was so committed to the ridiculousness they mostly work anyway? Turn one of those songs into a movie and you’d get King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Guy Ritchie isn’t nearly as good at directing as the members of Zeppelin were at playing their instruments, as even back in the more critically acclaimed days of Snatch – which we’ll call Good Guy Ritchie – his blatantly directed, needle-drop saturated movies suffered from what we’ll call a serious lack of chill. Fortunately, Good Guy Ritchie hasn’t been around for awhile, as his 2010s spree of directing movies based on pre-existing properties (shout out to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) has seen him evolve into his true and ultimate form: Bad Guy Ritchie.
Bad Guy Ritchie may not make good movies in the way Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels could seem good, but he does make great times, because where Good Guy Ritchie was primarily concerned with making movies that seemed good, Bad Guy Ritchie is primarily concerned with doing whatever the hell he feels like. For example, there have been, literally, almost a thousand years worth of King Arthur stories, but do any of them open with castle under siege by an elephant the size of Godzilla?
This isn’t just the largest elephant I’ve ever seen in a movie, but the largest elephant by a factor of one thousand, because Bad Guy Richie is the type of director who smashes records with aplomb for what is seemingly no reason. “Aplombous smashing and lack of reason” are actually the key words for describing this particular take on the legend (of the sword), which splits the difference between gritty “street-level” reboot, franchise origin story thing, and bonkers fanfiction.
In this Arthur-world, King Uther (Eric Bana) was murdered by his traitorous brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who rules England with an iron fist. Uther’s toddler-age son Arthur escapes, and is raised in a brothel until he grows up and becomes Charlie Hunnam, the brothel’s criminal underworld-traversing protector. A combination of events leads to him drawing the titular sword from the stone, and he slowly becomes part of a revolution against the extremely unlikable King Vortigern, who Law’s unparalleled sniveling ability really brings to life.
The script is co-written by the director, Lionel Wigram, Joby Harold, and while I wasn’t there, I can hazard a guess that the writing process involved Wigram and Harold writing a movie about King Arthur, and the director shoving a Guy Ritchie movie into the middle of it. I’m not super fresh on my King Arthur lore, but I’m pretty sure I don’t remember him having a street gang, mouthing off at cops, or training as a slow motion boxer. Good fresh new take? Questionable. The joy of Bad Guy Ritchie, though, is that he doesn’t care.
In fact, he doesn’t care so hard that the form here is in perfect sync with the content—in that it too, is just shamelessly shoving Guy Ritchie Stuff into a medieval world. The heist-y montages that cut between characters selectively recounting events and the actual way it went down, overhead shots of people running through alleys, and percussive, high tempo score are all here, but you know what? In a world where fantasy movies are generally directed as blandly as possible, Bad Guy Ritchie is out there doing what we need.
There’s so much glorious plodding in this movie I haven’t even gotten to its glorious plodder & co. I’ve never seen Sons of Anarchy, but Hunnam, who, when it comes to classic English folktales, is really playing something closer to Robin Hood here, gives what’s by far his most charismatic performance in a movie—one of Bad Guy Ritchie’s greatest skills is to draw enough pure ‘tude out of normally bland leading man with cartoonishly good looks to create genuinely enjoyable performances (see: Cavill, Henry). Even more surprising (and whichever Ritchie did it, genuinely Good) is that this must be the most racially diverse King Arthur movie ever, with Djimon Hounsou as resistance leader Sir Bedivere, Tom Wu as Arthur’s martial arts mentor George, and Kingsley Ben-Adir crew member Wetstick.
I could go on about how I cared about Arthur’s crew way more than I ever expected to, or how their big chase scene, where they all slide around almost in unison, is one of the better chases I’ve seen in forever, but like, if you think this movie looks bad, watching it is certainly not going to dissuade you. But just in case, what would you say if I told you it’s finale also features the most faithful cinematic adaptation of a fight from the video game Soul Calibur in film history? If Bad Guy Ritchie, Bad King Arthur, or Bad Fantasy Ridiculousness do sounds good, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword just may be the legend for you.