King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie’s entirely brainless, totally enjoyable fantasy reveals the bro-y side of the Arthurian legend.

Charlie Hunnam in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

Warner Bros.

The last time King Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, it was 2004, and he looked like Clive Owen and strode grimly through a dour, unenchanted Britain and just sort of picked it up. This time, in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the son of Uther Pendragon resembles lunky blond Charlie Hunnam, of Sons of Anarchy. Magic—mostly of the video game “mages and creatures” variety—is everywhere. Artie’s spent his youth in a brothel getting punched by johns, training in martial arts, and running a small racket with his lowlife Londinium pals. He’s a nice dude—funny, charming, with a waggish gleam in his eye and the endearing blend of humility and cockiness that can recommend certain meatheads. He approaches Excalibur. It is embedded deep in a rock shaped like his slain father, Eric Bana. (In fact, the rock is Uther, murdered by his brother Vortigern, a deliciously campy villain known elsewhere as the Young Pope.) Arthur touches the hilt, and the inscriptions along the blade glow; when he lifts Excalibur from the stone, the ground convulses, the pit bulls owned by the evil king’s guard gnash their jaws, there is (if I’m remembering right) a literal guitar solo, and somewhere a lion is roaring. That is essentially all you need to know about Ritchie’s approach to the once and future king: It is almost entirely brainless. It is totally enjoyable. It subscribes in full to words uttered by a different legendary royal right before the party started: “Don’t worry … I only want you to have some fun.”

This undemanding friendliness ends up defining the film, though Ritchie tries to inject some edge via jumpy camera work and gutsy anachronisms. (“Just do your fucking job,” Vortigern hisses to a minion at one point.) One highlight is the montage that whirls us through Arthur’s formative years. An overcaffeinated blur of beat downs, japes, quips, and glistening muscles, it does more to develop this young rogue’s character (and leading man bona fides) than the rest of the film combined. Elsewhere, the crowd-pleasing effects come fast and furious: Huge CGI wizard elephants, huge CGI serpents, huge CGI wolves, and huge CGI bats (to the point where you might wonder whether you’ve actually walked into Honey, I Blew Up the Zoo) occasion a bunch of flashy battles set to Celtic-flavored rock anthems. Vortigern turns to a three-torsoed kraken composed of naked women and tentacles to acquire more power. Meanwhile, Arthur and his merry crew are aided by the Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), who can project her mind into the bodies of eagles.

Don’t worry about the plot. Vortigern is a tyrannical liege who monologues about the pleasures of being feared. His cronies give Nazi salutes. At one point, he rears up on a horse as a village blazes around him and screams, “We will crush the resistance tonight!” Then there are the interchangeable goodhearted guttersnipes and stoic advisers (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aidan Gillen, Djimon Hounsou) who will later populate the Round Table. (There may be some message here about aristocratic elitism versus salt-of-the-earth populism but probably not.) Anyway, Arthur frees the sword, but then resists the sword, but then accepts the sword; Vortigern, who wants him dead, draws him into a series of battles that culminate in a Jungian boss fight on some fantasy level encircled by crashing waves. (Something something Joseph Campbell here? Probably not.) It is never entirely clear why anyone is performing any particular action. A large chunk of the movie follows Arthur to the Underworld simply so that he can get his passport stamped. But Ritchie has gleefully set his timeworn characters in an environment where narrative logic has no purchase. One name for this environment is subconscious dreamscape. Another is mosh pit.

Fans of the traditional Arthurian story may be disappointed. According to Slashfilm, Ritchie plans to expand Legend of the Sword into a six-part franchise, which could explain the absence of key characters like Gawain, Merlin, Guinevere, Kay, and Lancelot. (We do meet Bedivere and Tristan, alongside new faces Wet Stick and Back Lack.) And temperamentally, the Arthur that Ritchie and his co-writers Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold have conjured is no more a creature of mannered, courtly Sir Thomas Malory than is one of the gangsters from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Ritchie, of course, loves to drag a high literary icon into the gutter. Two of his previous films starred Robert Downey Jr. as a rough-and-tumble Sherlock Holmes.

As for the women of pre-Camelot, they mostly exist to be killed in dramatic ways that galvanize male revenge and resolve. (The exceptions are the sex squid and the hot sorceress.) It is annoying until you realize that the men don’t have personalities either; indeed, they get dispatched more casually, if less glamorously, than their corseted counterparts. As a general rule, anyone troubled by the patronizing notion that women are pure and helpless and in need of protection should probably avoid the Arthurian legend more broadly. Still, it is worth noting that Legend of the Sword inadvertently exposes the dark side of chivalry: Arthur’s female friends at the brothel and in the castle are not just condescended to. They are idealized and objectified; then, they are destroyed. Even their deaths become instrumental.

But let’s not kill the vibe at this party. King Arthur wants desperately to please, and it mostly succeeds. (The hero’s catchphrase is even “Why have enemies when you can have friends?”) Toward the end of the movie, a group of newly minted knights gather ’round to inspect a piece of furniture their leader is assembling. Is it a wheel of cheese? they ask, ribbing one another in accordance with the bro code. A dance floor?  

“It’s a table,” Arthur replies, with a mysterious smile.

In that moment, reader, I swear I knew exactly what he was thinking. This will be perfect for beer pong.