Lancelot du Lac, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels: Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur

King Arthur-Legend of the SwordKing Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Opens May 12

Looking over his filmography, it’s fascinating how quickly and fully Guy Ritchie pivoted from one type of career to another. For his first decade, most of his movies are stylized British crime capers: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch; and, less successfully, RockNRolla and the appalling Revolver. (I haven’t seen his ill-fated outlier collabo with his then-wife Madonna, the remake of Swept Away.) Then with a Sherlock Holmes remake, he found a new calling: Take something old; gussy it up with flash, CG and, if possible, bare-knuckle boxing, usually for Warner Brothers; collect the proverbial suitcase full of money.

I don’t begrudge Ritchie this second act, although Warners might: Between 2015’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and this weekend’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Ritchie has also become lord of the would-be franchise that may never generate any actual sequels. You’re probably familiar with the type: Overcooked yet withholding, the kind of movies that start with a scroll of text and end with a cliffhanger, confident that its audience is excited to read a bunch of backstory, watch a bunch more backstory, and wait two years to see… more backstory, probably. These miscalculations can be galling, yet in Ritchie’s hands, the world-building doesn’t feel quite so lugubrious. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was, in fact, downright light on its feet. I’d watch a sequel to that without question.

You can tell from its subtitle that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t exactly destined for that level of snappiness. But it is lively even as it fails to fire up a six-movie saga. Ritchie seems to have come up with two different, not entirely incompatible but also not really reconciled hot takes on the Arthurian legend: one version that envisions bizarre fantastical sights in Camelot, like building-sized elephants hypnotized into a rampage or a slithery tangle of whispering, evil snake-women; and another that recasts Arthur and his knights as laddish ruffians out of an older Ritchie gangster movie. For sheer novelty, the latter is more promising, surrounding a streetwise Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) with fellows named things like Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), Wetstick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and Backlack (Neil Maskell); the inevitable kung-fu master, though, is just called George (Tom Wu).

Hunnam has a vaguely Statham-y presence (and vocal tone) here and does well with several cracking sequences where Ritchie cuts between narration of an event and the event itself. As was the case with even prime gangster Ritchie, the insults and rejoinders in the dialogue aren’t quite as clever as the screenplay assumes, and spend a lot of time repeating the characters’ names. But it’s funny nonetheless, especially in a magic-sword-and-hella-sorcery movie. The movie’s heavy reliance on actual magic, especially bizarre creatures (giant bats! Giant-er snakes!) doesn’t necessarily mix well with the Classic Ritchie jocularity, but it’s hard not to get a kick out of the bizarre sights, even when rendered, as they often are, in gritty color-drained grays. This Arthur doesn’t have a major romance, but he does flirt with a “mage” (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), sort of a Merlin/Guinevere hybrid (finally, a franchise where King Arthur and Merlin might fuck someday!) (actual Merlin did exist in this world, but is unseen, presumably dead).

The story of Legend of the Sword, which has Arthur retrieving his birthright sword from, yep, a stone, and reluctantly learning to wield its immense power as his evil-king uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) commits and/or orders killing after killing by means of retribution, power-grabbing, etc., is kind of a mess. It’s one of those movies that takes a long time to inform the characters of the full backstory the audience receives very early in the film (though Ritchie occasionally reveals “more” of that scene via additional footage that contains little new information that we haven’t already guessed), and despite its more kinetic moments, has a tough time getting real forward momentum. When it does go into full-on climactic spectacle, the action looks uncomfortably like a Timur Bekmambetov picture: lots of close-ups, slow-motion, CG stunt doubles, and swirls of videogame fight moves. It makes sense that Law’s rotting anguish doesn’t really have an opportunity to share the screen with Hunnam; they don’t ever occupy the same tonal space, anyway.

They’re not even after the same kind of legend. Vortigern’s is of the mythical good-and-evil variety, while Arthur favors the joshing legends shared over a pub-friendly incarnation of the round table. These two approaches to storytelling don’t really braid together, but they’re both a lot of fun. It’s the Underworld/Snatch mash-up you probably didn’t want but might not mind watching. Especially now that it’s likely to be a cheerfully barmy one-off.