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Guy Ritchie’s Swaggering King Arthur

Charlie Hunnam in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Warner Bros.)
Ritchie’s latest film infuses the Arthurian legend with his own very modern sensibility.

The British director Guy Ritchie made his name with the swaggering 1998 film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, about smack-talking Cockneys plotting London capers, and with the new King Arthur: Legend of the Sword he proves pleasingly able to adapt his favorite formula to Merrie Olde England. As far as I can tell, the major change is that this one takes place in “Londinium.” Call it Lock, Stock and Two Flaming Arrows.

King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is reimagined as a soccer yob, complete with rakish haircut and working-class accent, who grows up orphaned in a brothel, thieving and fighting to stay alive on the Thames. Moses-like, Arthur barely escaped chaos at Camelot when he was set to sea by his dad Uther (former leading man Eric Bana, now sadly reduced to a glorified cameo). Uther, the good king, was deposed in a coup engineered by his evil brother Vortigern (Jude Law).

Vortigern, having made a deal with evil sorcerers that indicates Ritchie has probably made a deal to deliver a lot of Game of Thrones tropes, is in the process of building a tower of evil power seemingly designed by the architectural firm of Tolkien and Associates. Before he can achieve the ultimate nastiness signified by the tower’s completion, though, Arthur and a surprisingly multicultural band of brigands (including an African aristocrat played by Djimon Hounsou, a kung-fu master played by Tom Wu, and GOT mainstay Aidan Gillen) plot an attack with the help of a good witch, the Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), whose naming I suppose indicates no hard feelings between Ritchie and the Madge, the not-so-good-witch to whom he was once married.

There is plenty of spectacle — brutal Matrix-time sword fights, creepy aquatic sorceresses with a huge squid for a den mother, colossal elephants, a snake the size of an intercity train, and a rat the size of a Labrador. Ritchie gives you your money’s worth of attractions in and around the fortress; we’re talking Camelot, not Camelittle. All of this is good news: Who doesn’t love a nice clanking battle between fierce dudes in iron pajamas, preferably in the mud?

Besides, the world has long been waiting for an even passable cinematic retelling of the Arthurian legend. The 2004 film King Arthur, with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, didn’t work, and 1995’s First Knight, with Sean Connery and Richard Gere, was arthritically stiff. Ritchie, recognizing the story needed a few new twists, freshens things up nicely — Law makes an excellent villain, particularly when fighting, sorcery-infused, as a twelve-foot monster with a flaming scythe — without straying too far from the classic elements. He works in, for instance, a couple of blokish, modern jibes about the Round Table as it’s being built, even as he makes sure to tip his cap to the verities by preserving its mythic heft. Arthur’s discovery of, and relationship to, the mighty Excalibur also gets a thorough reworking that adds some shadings to his character while providing a clever way to deepen his bond with his late father. Legend of the Sword, then, is the first adequately rousing Arthurian epic since 1981’s Excalibur, which remains the most satisfying treatment the Good King A. has received onscreen, if you don’t count Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Legend of the Sword, then, is the first adequately rousing Arthurian epic since 1981’s Excalibur.

In certain ways, Legend of the Sword is undisciplined, though. I was a bit mystified both by the parameters of the Mage’s powers — couldn’t she have just snapped her fingers and done the boys’ work for them? — and also by the details of several complicated capers presented with Ritchie’s trademark rapid-fire narration, smart-mouthed asides, and multi-flashback editing. Too much of the time, Ritchie gallops through exposition he should be developing in images. He has a frustratingly short attention span, and there are moments when a haunting spectacle that would cause, say, Peter Jackson to stop and linger in wonderment zooms past too quickly.

What really interests Ritchie, now as ever, is tough-guy camaraderie, rude pub banter, the wolfish joy of membership in a pack of rogues. Arthur’s mates might as well be a mob of tattooed hard men gathered to cheer on Tottenham Hotspur, pausing occasionally to throw a few larkish punches at anyone wearing the colors of the enemy tribe, who after all are flooding the street for the same reason. It makes perfect sense, then, that David Beckham pops up in a cameo appearance: He’s the patron saint of this lot. He also looks fierce enough to star in his own spinoff saga — Behead It Like Beckham, anyone?

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