In this version of the well-known story (sword, stone, wizards, etc.), the film isn’t so much written as it is edited within an inch of its life. Most people assume that movies can’t tell an effecting story with rapidly edited montages alone, but what “King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword” presupposes is — maybe it can? It can’t, but it’s a noble effort.
In the first half, Ritchie and editor James Herbert manage to nail a delicate balance in the aggressive edit. The film flashes forward, back, sideways and through time, slashing through hypotheticals, plans, nightmares, memories, and tall tales. By the thinnest thread, they maintain character, tone, place and time. But the second half of the film devolves into a fetid stew of muddled timelines and mushy details.
About two-thirds of the way through, at about the point where Ritchie has attached cameras to his actors’ shoulders so the audience can jog along, looking at the underside of someone’s chin as they run and jump and hurtle through space, it all becomes a bit exhausting and disorienting. Ritchie, Herbert and the writers don’t establish character well enough in the early part of the film, but they attempt to achieve touching character moments in the second half, which is difficult when we barely have a grasp on each character’s name, who they are, and what they’re doing.
That’s a shame for the story since it revolves around the themes of friendship and male companionship. With no Guinevere or love triangle, Arthur is only motivated by a desire to protect his friends and loved ones, which distinguishes him from his evil uncle, King Vortigern (Jude Law), who has no problem slashing relatives down one by one if it makes him more powerful. That focus on the relationships between men is one of Ritchie’s hallmarks. As for the women in the film, we’ve got a horde of nurturing sex workers, an unnamed Mage (Astrid Berges Frisbey), and various, interchangeable wives, mothers, daughters, sisters.
What is clear is Ritchie’s desire to retell a legend of English royalty through his adopted perspective on the world, to show a London (“Londinium” in the film) peppered with Cockney-accented con men, thieves, whores and low-lifes, no matter the century. He makes Arthur, a king of royal blood, into a commoner by the circumstances of his upbringing. In “Sherlock Holmes” and now “King Arthur,” Ritchie seeks to disrupt and reinterpret the myths of aristocratic English heroes into scheming, wheedling, street-smart tough guys.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t stick the landing on “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Anything innovative descends into a computer-generated monstrous melee. Nevertheless, the larger issue remains as to why this is the current iteration of Arthur — seemingly, it’s just because Ritchie thinks it’s cool.
Walsh writes for Tribune News Service.
‘KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD’
2 out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language.
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges Frisbey, Jude Law, Aiden Gillen, Djimon Honsou, Eric Bana, Annabelle Wallis
Director: Guy Ritchie
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes