Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Guy Ritchie couldn’t make a franchise out of King Arthur, but his attempt is a fun one-off

Illustration for article titled Guy Ritchie couldn’t make a franchise out of King Arthur, but his attempt is a fun one-off
Screenshot: King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: David Lowery’s The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel as King Arthur’s nephew Gawain, has been postponed. But there are plenty of other interesting takes on the Arthurian legends available to stream from home today. 


King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (2017)

As a franchise-starter, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is a bust. That’s empirically true, in that it lost Warner Bros. a ton of money and did not spawn the planned six-film Arthur cycle, and it’s also an artistic shortcoming, in that it can’t fully conceal the dollar signs in its eyes. The movie spends considerable screen time setting up a world and originating an ensemble meant to be revisited later, in sequels that are clearly teased yet difficult to actually picture. At the same time, Legend Of The Sword stands out from others on that perilous quest to forge IP gold from public-domain characters because it often feels like the filmmakers had fun making it. It may not be rich enough for a saga, but it’s overstuffed enough for a single-use good time.

Being an origin story where Excalibur isn’t properly wielded until the last act, this King Arthur opens with the hero as a wee babe, whose father, Uther (Eric Bana), rules Camelot until the king’s treacherous brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), takes over. When Arthur escapes the palace carnage, the movie makes a kicky pivot from Sturm und Drang blockbusting to laddish Guy Ritchie montage of the boy king growing up in the streets, unaware of his heritage. He learns the art of thieving and, of course, bare-knuckle brawling, Ritchie’s favorite element of any given reimagining of a classic hero. For a while, the movie toggles back and forth between the refusing-the-call wisecrackery of Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) and the guilt-racked power-grasping of Vortigern, never quite occupying the same space, physically or tonally.

The recognizable Ritchie riffs, where future knights have names like Wet Stick and Goosefat Bill and say stuff like “you got some heat on ya, Arthur” while planning out capers, provides a fresh variation on Arthurian legend. (If only he had managed to fit Jason Statham in there somewhere.) There are also giant bats, rats, and snakes when the fantastical elements start making their way into Arthur’s story, mostly via an unnamed mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). In addition to flocks of crows, the mage (described as an associate of an unseen Merlin) also summons the B-movie energies of unpretentious Screen Gems series like Resident Evil or Underworld, only with better special effects and a better sense of humor. That’s where the movie’s actively clashing tones come in handy: Hunnam and the lads keep matters from getting unbearably dour. A color palette consisting largely of grays and browns is less oppressive when cut together with Ritchie’s trademark music-video flash.

Ritchie spent a full decade trying to apply that flash to big-budget adventures; King Arthur was his follow-up to The Man From U.N.CL.E., covered here just a couple weeks ago. Arthur is heavier and less sexy than that lark, throwing itself into a hurricane of debris for an underwhelming, overblown climax. Before then, though, Legend Of The Sword does start to look like a credible franchise version of Camelot—not because it holds the promise of so many amazing adventures to come, but because it has enough crazy creatures, overqualified English actors, and slimy moat hags to resemble a scuzzy Harry Potter. At this point, failing to make an actual blockbuster out of this material is on track to become an integral part of Arthurian lore.

Availability: King Arthur: Legend Of the Sword is available to rent digitally from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and VUDU. It’s also currently on TUBI for free with minimal ad breaks.


Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!