Back in 2014, when Guy Ritchie‘s King Arthur project, then titled “Knights Of The Round Table,” was announced, it was designed to be the first film in a lengthy series (early trade coverage suggested there could be as many as six movies in total). With a prime summer 2016 release slot, some heavyweight talent in front of the camera (including Charlie Hunnam as Arthur, Eric Bana as his father Uther, and Jude Law as Arthur’s scheming uncle), and a gritty “Batman Begins“-like take on the material, it seemed at the time like this could be Hollywood’s next big franchise. But now, with several missed release dates, a title change to “King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword,” and little talk of subsequent films, it’s unclear whether Arthur is the once and future king or the stuff of pricey studio write-downs. As it turns out, Ritchie’s ‘King Arthur’ is a pleasing big-budget spectacle, oddly aligned with the filmmaker’s thematic interests and startlingly compatible with his signature razzle-dazzle style. In fact, the soggiest moments in the movie are the ones that adhere the closest to that ambitious multi-film strategy, lessening the fun and emptying its impact.
The movie opens with a lengthy (and admittedly pretty spectacular) prologue in which Camelot, the fabled stronghold of Arthurian legend, is under siege by dark wizards riding enormous, battle-ready elephants. The soundtrack booms, the computer-generated bridges tumble, and the struggle for power is clearly established — Uther Pendragon (Bana) is in command, his brother Vortigern (Law) is attempting to help but clearly undermining him, and his young son Arthur will one day be forced to stand against the darkness. Before Uther dies, he even sets his child adrift on a boat for full biblical impact. (We get an incredibly Guy Ritchie-esque montage of young Arthur growing up, scrapping, learning how to fight, and being protective of the women in the brothel who raised him in what would become modern-day London. Quite frankly, if the sequence had been set to a peak-era Oasis song, it would have been virtually indistinguishable from a scene in one of the filmmaker’s earlier movies.)
It’s only when Arthur is grown up and looking like the chiseled, bearded Hunnam that the movie begins in earnest. Arthur is picked up for starting a fight with some Vikings and general mischief, and charged with attempting to remove the sword from the stone, which had recently been unearthed, at the behest of Vortigern. Of course, we know what happens next — Arthur takes the sword from the stone and is deemed the next ruler of England. This doesn’t sit well with Vortigern, who orders his execution. When that fails, Arthur joins a merry band of resistance fighters, including Guinevere (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), and Goosefat Bill Wilson (Aiden Gillen, one of several “Game Of Thrones” alums on the payroll). They devise a way to dethrone Vortigern and install Arthur as the next king of England.
As far as plot goes, there’s not much of it. Ritchie and co-screenwriters Lionel Wigram (his key creative confederate of late) and Joby Harold, who sold Warner Bros. on the idea of a big-time King Arthur franchise, instead choose to luxuriate in the loose framework they’ve provided themselves. Inside that framework, they play around both with the actual Arthurian legends and audience expectations. What’s unclear is how much of that was either a creative choice or a deliberate attempt to hold certain elements back so they can be revealed in later movies.
What’s shocking, even after that initial “Arthur growing up” sequence, is how stylistically in line with Ritchie’s previous films ‘King Arthur’ really is. The picture has a number of the filmmaker’s hallmarks — everything from scenes of characters running through the city with body cameras attached to them (“RocknRolla“), to scary dogs barking in slow motion (“Snatch“), to a magical weapon everyone wants a piece of (“Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels“), to a sequence built around a wise-guy hustler telling a version of the truth that doesn’t exactly align with reality (every one of his movies). In an attempt to one-up the slow-motion madness of his “Sherlock Holmes” films, Ritchie introduces a kind of “power mode” when Arthur touches the sword that seems equal parts inspired by videogames and the “bullet time” effect from “The Matrix.” It’s also worth noting that ‘King Arthur’ marries nicely with Ritchie’s ongoing thematic concerns. He’s always been obsessed with the idea of what it means to be British, and so it makes sense to take that back to Arthurian legend, when the modern concept of Englishness was really forged. Even though hundreds of people worked on it and countless executives had a say in its direction, this is a Guy Ritchie movie through-and-through.
Of course, the real star of the film here is Hunnam, who, after several years of false starts, seems to finally be taking his place as a really-for-real leading man. (Just watch the excellent “Lost City Of Z,” in theaters now, for further evidence of this phenomenon.) Ritchie’s Arthur is a powerful fighter and has the courage of his convictions, but he’s also wounded and doubtful, uneasy with the prospect of leading a rebellion, much less the whole of England. And it takes an actor with a certain set of skills, a kind of roguish charm armed with extreme physicality and a beset by a tortured sense of self. It’s not as easy as it looks (his abs can’t do all the acting), and Hunnam charts the arc of the character with humor and realism. Somehow, after countless actors have pulled sword from stone, Hunnam makes the role his own.
The problem, of course, comes when “King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword” plays coy in order to stretch the story through a franchise that seems unlikely to ever materialize. Merlin is mentioned but never seen (it was reported early in development that Idris Elba was sought for the role; maybe after he turned it down, they just deleted the character altogether), it wasn’t even clear that Bergès-Frisbey was playing Guinevere until I read marketing materials for the film after I watched it, and such Arthurian stalwarts as Lancelot and Morgan Le Fay aren’t present either. There’s no reason that they shouldn’t be here; what’s a few more characters in a movie already this overstuffed and zany? It becomes clear, though, in the way that they treat the Round Table (like Avengers tower at the end of Joss Whedon‘s first film) and the winking way in which things are withheld, that Ritchie and his collaborators, at least initially, were more interested in engaging audiences for an entire franchise than satisfying them completely for a single film. This is a shame, as there’s a lot to love about “King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword,” and with some more finesse and attention it could have been a genuinely great romp. Instead, it’s a mindless, often thrilling, occasionally dull extravaganza that rings as hollow as it does only because Ritchie and his team wanted to keep the machine alive for a few more movies. It’s a decision that isn’t exactly gallant. [B-]