Going into King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the biggest draw is the also the most obvious one: Guy Ritchie. There’s only so much you can do to the foundational Arthurian lore to make it interesting, and having the guy that made Snatch write and direct it is one rock solid way to kickstart that intrigue. Unfortunately, throughout this two-hour slog, anything engaging lost amidst a belligerent, perfunctory swamp of bombast.
From the outset, you’d think it’d be a better fit. The movie is pretty much the result of someone asking what if Arthur Pendragon started out as a medieval soccer hooligan before becoming a superhero. Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is cast into the seedy Londinium after his uncle Vortigern usurps his father’s throne. Orphaned and alone, Arthur is taken in by the underworld and eventually rises to the top (while being morally superior).
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the world is that it’s so banal. Aside from the times we’re in the dank alleyways with Arthur and his henchmen, it looks like Tolkien fantasy. More than that, it feels like Peter Jackson’s imagining of Tolkien’s world than Ritchie’s take on dragon- and magic-filled fantasy. Because of this, the entire opening sequence comes across as a detached tale of Middle-earth. And with only text-based backstory, there’s little drama involved.
Things pick up early on when it reduces into a pseudo grand political story. There’s genuine intrigue surrounding the idea of the uncle and his deep sacrifice conflicting with his…otherworldly ambitions. And then you throw in a lost son to the throne but the uncle’s plans somewhat hinge on a return to/revelation of the crown. It’s a bit like The Lion King, but with more magic.
And with the immediate disposal of any pretense of accuracy (you don’t just tell a Viking, “Yeah, I don’t think so, mate”), it also gains a sudden breath of life. In fact, the first sequence where Ritchie goes full Ritchie with a magnificent flood of interstitial, rapid cuts and goofs is almost enough to convince you this is a movie worth watching. The style overfloweth.
As soon as your hopes are lifted, however, they are dragged back down to Earth just as quickly. Consider a meteoric rise, but then an actual meteor crashing into the ground. You’d think something that fails so quickly would move fast, too, but instead, the movie then decides to dabble in crawling to the finish line.
The story plays out with little consequence. People come and go from the story seemingly at will. Maid Maggie (Annabelle Wallis), for instance, comes barreling into the second act as if she would be the point on which the entire film depends. But the only other thing she does before ghosting is go on a shockingly dull boat ride. Even Guinevere (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) manages to be nothing more than a collection of scowls and deus ex machina.
That goes for a handful of other characters that the story tries to dress up with superficially wrought conflict. Hollow student-teacher relationships, there’s a father-son thing that resolves like a middle school book report, and even the eventual aggregation of the knights feels like exploratory jazz turned film project. And this puts some rather solid performances to waste, including Aidan Gillen of Quantum Break fame.
If only it could be said that the movie also looks good because that is unfortunately not the case for much of it. Most of the film looks like your standard fantasy fare with significant financial backing. Bland, drab, dark, and unmotivated. There’s nothing unique or interesting that happens visually until Ritchie turns Arthur into a superhero, at which point he makes Zack Snyder’s 300 flair look like amateur hour.
Even then, the single biggest advantage towards the pornographically slow motion of those action sequences (read: digestibility) is lost. With quick cuts and impossible camera moves among the purely digital actors, it’s hard to keep track of anything but the ground. It’s a whirling dervish for all the wrong reasons.
If this sounds excessively harsh, that’s because this should really act as a warning. There are some fantastic things here. Hunnam is what seems like the perfect actor for this role for Ritchie, able to present just enough of a knowing facade that you’re into his role while winking along the whole way. And Jude Law manages to wring emotion from pretty much nothing as Vortigern, even though his arc is easily the most bountiful.
But to get to all the good bits where a writer/director flexes his finely tuned and highly stylized muscles with kinetic pans and zooms and off-the-wall sense of modernity clashes delightfully with medieval pre-England, you have to suffer. You have to sit through a lot of tedious, boring, incongruous storytelling. So if you think you can stomach that, then sure, there’s something here for you.
Final Score: 4 out of 10