Grade: C+
Entire family: No
2017, 126 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content, and brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Guy Ritchie and the King Arthur legend? Sounds like a match made in heaven, doesn’t it? After all, the director who gave us Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sure breathed new life into another legendary but staid franchise, Sherlock Holmes, reinvigorated and reinvented in partnership with star Robert Downey Jr.

For King Arthur: Legend of the Sword he had hunky and charismatic Sons of Anarchy alum Charlie Hunnam to work with, and Jude Law playing the bad guy on the throne. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, when a film begins with giant elephants with pyramids on their backs filled with soldiers and all of them attacking a castle, it certainly gets your attention—kind of like those rock monsters did in the otherwise believably biblical epic of Noah. Then there’s more action, and people talking quickly about things you’re not grasping, and more outrageous things happening, and scenes quickly changing, and before you know it you’re feeling like some of those soldiers in the opening battle, falling hundreds of feet into a moat below and drowning in confusion.

There are some absolutely marvelous sequences in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but because confusion reigns with an even tighter fist than King Vortigern (Law), you don’t have enough context to really appreciate what’s happening. It probably doesn’t help that Ritchie employs some of the self-conscious techniques he used in his smart crime dramas: like guys telling a story and we see it in narrative flashback as they speak, then someone will ask a question and the story will change or something will happen that’s even more visually outrageous, like the flashback reversing when one of the listeners says, “Whoa, back up.” It’s clever and postmodern and fun and all, but it also adds to the confusion rather than helping to resolve it. Ritchie’s technique often involves throwing a lot at viewers and then later explaining what they saw, but even the explanations fall short when you watch this film for the first time. I suspect it will take two or three viewings to make complete sense of the film.

It also doesn’t help that Ritchie has taken a familiar medieval legend and mixed in different elements from a more contemporary time. There are Asian kung fu masters and pupils, people that look, act and talk like mafia wiseguys or small-time crooks, Vikings, and a backstory about the Mages and the King of the Mages and what they had to do with Vortigen and Arthur. It’s as if part of Ritchie’s inspiration for the film came from the Heroscape game, with its wild combination of medieval and modern heroes and villains and, in this case, landscapes as well. There are times when it looks as if we’re in medieval England, ancient Rome, Byzantine-era Italy, or in Naboo on a Star Wars set.

And where are the familiar markers from this well-known legend? If this is the first installment of what Ritchie is reportedly thinking of as a series in the five- or six-film range, then Lady Guinevere wouldn’t have come on the scene yet, and neither would Lancelot, who came late to the (round) table. But Merlin isn’t here, and neither is Mordred, and the legend of pulling the sword from the stone yields to a wilder invented tale of how the sword was forged and how Arthur must learn to hold it without somehow succumbing to the dark power that’s somehow wrapped up in the blade. In other words, the sword is no longer just a symbol of Arthur’s right to rule medieval England. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has more in common with superhero origin stories than it does a medieval adventure—and it ends with the construction of the round table.

The female Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) isn’t nearly as interesting a character as Merlin, and her presence is less dynamic than you’d expect for a tutor or guide or cautionary figure. But the story and characters seem less important to Ritchie than the style of storytelling, and despite the confusion there’s no denying that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a sumptuous feast for the senses, a tale that might be sung by a bard who had so many pots of coffee that he’s got the caffeine jitters. Just plan on watching it multiple times if you really want to figure things out. And please email me if you can explain why Vortigern struck a bargain with a slithering mass of eels and humans that reminds you more of Disney’s Ursula than anything we might expect to encounter in Camelot.

Language: Mostly mild swearwords except for one showstopping f-bomb
Sex: There is some skin shown of the eel-like sirens, and men with prostitutes (though no nudity or implied sex)
Violence: All sorts, with a boy seeing his father’s ear cut off, an implied offscreen scalping, a mother killed as her child watches, and plenty of intense fighting and killing (though with not as much blood as there could have been)
Adult situations: Arthur was raised in a brothel and the film makes a point of it
Takeaway: Ritchie’s style works best when he goes all out and infuses the action with humor, and he seems as constrained by this historical period as he is determined to subvert it

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