Do you lament the lack of sword and sorcery movies coming out of Hollywood? Well, fans of the likes of Krull, Beastmaster, Hawk the Slayer, and the slew of awesomely cheesy dudes-with swords-fighting-evil-magicians-movies that proliferated the early 1980s, are in luck with Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. I won’t necessarily say it’s good, but it’s a decent modern approximation of those movies, for both good and ill. It’s crazy, but not quite crazy enough. And though there are delirious highs, there are crushing, cringe-inducing lows. So, you know, par for the course.
Imagine Masters of the Universe made with a $100 million plus budget and access to today’s visual effects technology and you start to get the idea. King Arthur is big and loud, peppered with plot holes, overwrought to the point of hilarity, and full of one WTF choice after another. (Seriously, at one point the hero stands there, tripping balls, as a giant snake wrecks up a castle, and this is after the movie opens with Godzilla-sized war elephants.) It’s bonkers nonsense, and in that insanity, it’s both kind of marvelous and kind of trash.
This is essentially the superhero universe style King Arthur origin story. Charlie Hunnam is the perfect choice for this iteration and reinvention of the legend. (Or is it deconstruction? I don’t think it’s that smart. Dismantling maybe?) I’ve referred to him as a handsome block of wood come to life to deliver lines, and that’s precisely what this role requires. And he has enough charm and charisma that he’s compulsively watchable as we track the reluctant hero through his life. Orphaned at a young age, raised in a brothel, falling in with an old-timey London kung fu cult, running the streets, becoming a pimp and a mobster, and eventually pulling a sword out of a rock, he battles his evil, never-aging magic uncle, Vortigan (an ultra-smarmy, scenery-chomping Jude Law), and, kicking and screaming all the while, becomes the King Arthur of lore.
Along for the ride are an elfish Mage (AstridBerges-Frisbey), who can control animals and provide hallucinogens when necessary (I can’t tell if she’s supposed to be Guinevere or not, her character is only credited as “Mage”); his tough, Little John-esque sidekick, Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou); a dude who’s name is, I shit you not, “Goosefat” Bill (Aiden Gillen); a man named Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir); another called Back Lack (NeilMaskell); an entrenched spy, Maggie (Annabelle Wallis); and the aforementioned kung fu master, the unfortunately named Kung Fu George (Tom Wu). It’s been too long since I’ve delved into Arthurian legend, but I feel like I’d remember the name Wet Stick.
The problem with all the manic craziness in King Arthur is when it subsides. Long sections of expository dialogue slam the brakes on the breakneck pace. The thin narrative and characters take center stage, and it becomes obvious there’s not much going on below the surface and that these external aesthetics truly drive the film. This is a textbook case of style trumping substance.
When the movie goes, it goes, propelled by lighting fast edits and Daniel Pemberton’s score that’s simultaneously classical, discordant, and weirdly techno, despite exclusively using analog instruments. It’s odd and the unsung hero of the movie at times, while way, way too much at others. But when the tempo lets up, King Arthur gets twitchy and uncomfortable, and you can tell the filmmakers have an itch to move on. If this movie was a person, he’d tap his foot on the floor, fidget with a pencil, and glance around the room looking for exits.
For a medieval epic, King Arthur shares a great deal of DNA with Guy Ritchie’s first two features, both set in the modern London criminal underworld. Arthur’s quick, quippy dialogue with royal enforcers in a brothel could have been lifted from Snatch. And his penchant for having a character talk about what happened while the action plays out under the voiceover, is a go-to he’s used since Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. This serves him well in a couple instances, but he overuses this juxtaposition by a time or two.
Ritchie and cinematographer John Mathieson film King Arthur with epic gravitas and grandiosity fitting of the subject matter. But overreliance on CGI sinks most of the big action beats. Arthur turns into something akin to The Flash a couple of times, and there’s always a digital dust storm about to kick up. Even the climactic fight looks like a videogame boss battle, though I have to give props for the decision to give the shirtless baddie a flame cape.
Ambitious and flawed, overlong by a good 20 minutes, if not more, Guy Ritchie definitely has a singular vision for King Arthur. It’s not good enough to embrace as an actual good movie; and despite outlandish flourishes, it’s not weird enough to become a future cult classic (it’s no Gods of Egypt). There’s plenty of gonzo shit I can roll with, and quite a bit of slow motion yelling, but too often it turns into a shrug-worthy slog. Ultimately it’s the type of messy failure—though an admittedly intriguing one—the studios usually drop in January after they’ve written off the budget as a loss. [Grade: C+]