The best part of seeing Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur came early, when I was told that I would be sitting next to the three costumed Medieval Times actors I had seen taking pictures in the lobby of the NorthPark AMC. (The woman who told me this, whose clothes did not place her in the Middle Ages or their amusement park approximation, called me “m’lord” and asked me to move over after I sat in the king’s reserved seat and began playing with the paper crown I found there, all of which did make me feel as though I was engaged in some courtly intrigue.)
This was big news. I would have a captive audience. I began preparing two sets of questions, depending on who sat next to me before the movie: One for a medieval king (assuming he stayed in character), and one for an actor who plays a medieval king. Unfortunately, the rotund monarch of Medieval Times took his time getting popcorn and a Coke at concessions, and only dropped his hairy regal bulk into the seat beside me after the movie had started. The offscreen king also had the good sense to leave before the credits rolled, depriving me of the royal audience I desired and leaving me alone, alone with the rest of the audience and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a movie so ridiculously excessive it has the potential to be cheesy bad fun, but is mostly just bad. So bad that right now relating an anecdote about theater seating arrangements feels more compelling than describing its flaws.
However, describe them I shall. Ritchie, operating here in the same vein as his Sherlock Holmes films, again transplants a literary legend into a grimy, magical version of historical England, where men are constantly fighting in slow motion. The director keeps the parts of the Arthurian legend he likes — sword in stone, strange women in ponds, the inevitable victory of those in line to assume power in a hereditary monarchy. Much of the plot, however, feels like more of a video game fever dream, as Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) rises from his upbringing at a brothel in “Londinium” to join a woodlands resistance against his uncle, the evil king played by Jude Law. Arthur levels up with various side-quests before eventually battling the final boss on a CGI rock.
Arthur uses magic like a cheat code, sapping any drama from the central conflict. Our hero triumphs not through his wits, or his brawn, or through pure dumb luck, but instead because a magical snake bites him and imbues him with some unspecified power. It’s foolish to expect too much meritocracy in mythical medieval England. Even so, what has this man done to deserve to be king other than pull a sword out of a rock?
Senseless story aside, King Arthur also fails as both visual spectacle and action film. Like all of Ritchie’s movies (including his still worthwhile early crime films and 2015’s underrated spy caper The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), King Arthur has got its own irreverent, snappily edited energy. Yet, excepting one unsettling image of a trio of witches untangling themselves from a slimy mess of tentacles, the film looks more drab and lifeless than the cover of any odd fantasy novel paperback. The swordfights, in which Arthur unhurriedly blows through masses of faceless goons at no risk to himself, are dull and obvious, the pace of the action desultory.
We are introduced to the round table and threatened with sequels in the film’s closing moments, but hopefully audiences depose this one before it takes any kind of box office throne. Surely Ritchie can move on to another figure of English lore and literature. Maybe a ghostbusting Ebenezer Scrooge, capturing the ectoplasmic villains of his past in a steampunk Victorian London.
Audiences needing an Arthurian fix should get theirs by watching the more successfully bonkers Excalibur, or by reading T.H. White’s enchanting The Once and Future King. Or, hell, by daydreaming up a conversation with the actor who plays the king at Medieval Times.