Guy Ritchie emerged in the late 90s as a connoisseur of snappy crime comedies, with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch quickly becoming cult favorites. As his budgets grew larger with subsequent projects, Ritchie somehow found himself as the face behind many tentpole blockbusters. Although he’s recently returned to the crime films that launched his career with The Gentlemen and this past weekend’s Wrath of Man, Ritchie’s tenure as the writer/director of blockbusters is fascinating.
Many auteur filmmakers seem to shed their personal touch when they’re handed massive properties, but Ritchie kept his quirky stylistic impulses, including quick cuts and freeze frames, unreliable narrators, and wild supporting casts. And while the Sherlock Holmes movies and Aladdin both drew impressive box office returns, Ritchie also helmed two of the biggest bombs in recent memory with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. The former has earned more favorable responses following its initial release with its stars frequently asked about the possibility of a sequel, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem like there’s the same enthusiasm for Ritchie to return to the world of Arthurian mythology. But maybe he should!
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is bonkers in the best possible way, part of Hollywood’s most recent attempt to revitalize well-known public domain properties that also included The Three Musketeers (2011), Robin Hood (2018), Pan (2015), Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), and The Lone Ranger (2013). Ritchie was handed $175 million to make a cheeky, punk rock medieval epic intended to be the first in a six-film franchise, and his cheeky indifference towards building a sustainable mythology is worth celebrating.
Many films aimed at revitalizing time-old fables begin with the hook of promising an untold story, but Legend of the Sword actually does this. Charlie Hunnam’s would-be king isn’t a chivalrous leader, but rather a wild hooligan raised in brothels. The notion of destiny and heritage are openly mocked, and Hunnam has a ton of fun poking fun at the idea that Excalibur’s recovery somehow makes him worthy of ruling an entire kingdom.
Ritchie’s approach is intentionally subversive, but it also enhances Arthur’s journey as a character. As an impoverished child who witnesses the everyday struggles that the common people face, Arthur understands why his tyrannical uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) must be overthrown. Ritchie once said, “Luke Skywalker was the most uninteresting character in Star Wars because he’s the good guy,” and instilling Arthur with a Han Solo cynicism gives Legend of the Sword a hook to those unfamiliar with the established mythology.
Ritchie’s stylism is surprisingly well-suited for complex worldbuilding. The Lord of the Rings-esque opening establishes the backstory of Arthur’s father Uther (Eric Bana) and his betrayal at the hands of Vortigern in a more traditional manner, but once Arthur becomes the focus Ritchie’s signature frantic voiceovers and fast-talking characters take the reins. Not only does this show how Arthur’s perspective is different from the world he’s been born into, but it’s able to disseminate the complexities of lineage and Camelot politics in a more digestible way.
Hunnam balances Ritchie’s influence with the most important tenets of Arthur’s character; while his interpretation is certainly cocky and impulsive, he’s not just another one of Ritchie’s foul-mouthed antiheroes like Snatch’s Mickey O’Neil or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' Bacon. Even if he’s seemingly indifferent towards the notion of nobility, Hunnam’s Arthur is nonetheless a man willing to stand up to bullies. Granted, since this is a Guy Ritchie movie, that may involve getting into a fistfight with caricaturized Vikings that threaten his brothel. In a Camelot controlled by tyranny, this is what justice looks like.
Meanwhile, Jude Law is dialing it up to 11 with his ridiculous performance as Vortigern. Part Shakespearean villain and part Dr. Frankenstein, Law is having a blast chewing the scenery as his character (literally) sells his soul to gain demonic powers. Law completely understands that this is all camp, and it’s refreshing to see a villain that doesn’t even try to evoke any sympathies with a tragic backstory. Sometimes pure evil is all you need.
Although more violent and action-packed than other Arthurian adaptations, Legend of the Sword is about as far away from “dark and gritty” as you can get. Between trippy nightmare visions, giant snake monsters, and multi-dimensional demons, Legend of the Sword isn’t trying to convince anyone that it’s bound by reality. It’s also fun! There’s a good deal of banter between Arthur and his band of rebels that balances out the grimness of seeing Camelot overrun by fascism.
The editing of Ritchie’s action sequences may not be for everyone, but they provide enough modern sensibilities that differentiate the film from previous iterations. Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur and the romantic epic First Knight mostly stuck to large scale military conflicts, but since Legend of the Sword positions Arthur as a hunted fugitive it creates more potential for different types of scenarios. Arthur isn’t strictly a military leader, so seeing him help navigate his men out of crowded marketplaces and leading guerilla attacks does more than just change up the setting. The fantastic score from the brilliant Daniel Pemberton instills each sequence with added momentum.
Even if it ends up looking like a Dark Souls game, the final battle between Arthur and Vortigern takes a giant swing towards hard fantasy - if Ritchie’s films often feel like he’s crammed every funny line he’s ever thought of into his characters’ mouths, this is the equivalent of trying to visualize a distorted medieval painting. The inconsistent incorporation of magic is one of the film’s weaker aspects overall, but Arthur’s final words to Vortigern reinforce the theme that heroism isn’t defined by class in what’s strangely one of the more sincere things Ritchie has ever written. Perhaps Ritchie felt that breaking from frantic editing with a trippy CGI brawl might help reduce the story to a more elemental take on good and evil, or maybe he just thought it looked cool.
While the film was famously lampooned for its goal of supposedly launching a six-film franchise, there’s surprisingly little sequel bait. Sure, there’s a mild tag at the end that signifies a new era for the Round Table and sets the stage for characters like Lancelot, Percival, and Galahad to appear, but it comes after the natural conclusion of the story when Arthur comes to naturally consider his next steps as a ruler. Comparing it to the embarrassing teases for future installments in The Three Musketeers or Robin Hood is night and day.
Arthurian mythology has existed for over a thousand years and survived numerous iterations, including dozens of films. Some, like John Boorman’s Excalibur, the classic musical Camelot, and the quintessential parody Monty Python and the Holy Grail are already established classics, and each interpret the mythology differently. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be room for another auteur to give it a try. Ritchie cherry-picked elements of the story he found interesting to create his own undeniably unique interpretation, and as it turns out, it was far from the worst King Arthur movie to be released in 2017. (Transformers: The Last Knight, anyone?)
In hindsight, releasing a shaky tentpole film with an odd marketing campaign one week after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 probably wasn’t the best decision Warner Brothers could have made. The critical drumming the film received certainly wasn’t helped by its box office performance, and by no means does an over-budgeted tentpole need more sympathy than a smaller film unlikely to receive that attention. That being said, Legend of the Sword is an oddball that’s no less indulgent than any of Ritchie’s other work, and certainly not as mean-spirited. Given the film’s current availability on HBO Max, it’s worth giving another shot.
KEEP READING: Jason Statham on Re-Teaming with Guy Ritchie on ‘Wrath of Man’ and Why It’s Different From Their Previous Films
The droughtlander is almost over.
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