The classic fantasy tale gets a hyper-charged update from director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Snatch). The evil king Vortigern (Jude Law) has taken control of the kingdom of Londinium, and it is up to the born king Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) to reclaim the legendary sword Excalibur and bring order and peace to the kingdom.
When It’s Weird, It Works
There is a lot to like in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Guy Ritchie has taken the most basic medieval story and applied his kinetic style to it in alarming ways. The best thing Ritchie brings to the table is a hardline love of über-fantasy; there are sequences in this movie that look like they were ripped from a Blind Guardian album cover. When the film commits to this unabashedly goofy aesthetic, it’s actually pretty fun. You get wacky concepts like interdimensional demon elephants, giant snakes, a villain that looks like a goth Shao Kahn, and squid witches. You read that right: squid witches.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t commit to these ideas as much as it should. When they do show up, they feel like a reprieve from the rest of the film. When an enormous serpent shows up in a scene, you don’t even care that it feels unmotivated or completely ridiculous. It’s a treat that helps take you away from the movie’s copious problems. And there are a lot of them.
Some Style, No Substance
It was promising to think that Guy Ritchie was going to bring his signature attitude to this ancient story. It certainly worked for Sherlock Holmes. Sadly, the speed ramping action is reminiscent of Zack Snyder‘s worst instincts. Giant action scenes feel like an assaulting blend of music video and video game aesthetics. Ritchie’s style works early on with a montage of Arthur growing up on the streets, but it never returns for the rest of the film. At least, not in any satisfactory way. And his knack for transplanting modern anachronisms into historical settings doesn’t jive here either.
What’s truly damaging is that all this pomp and circumstance is in service of empty characters. Not even the excellent Jude Law can elevate his lame villain into someone worth enjoying. There are attempts at emotional beats for his character that fall embarrassingly flat. Arthur and his merry band are equally milquetoast and can’t quite carve out any interesting arcs for themselves. It’s doubly disappointing since the cast is uniformly great but they have nothing to work with. They are also undone by a nonsensical plot that isn’t nearly as complicated as it makes itself out to be.
Probably the most shocking thing is how boring the film is. The opening sequence with mages and demon elephants (why aren’t there more demon elephants in flicks?) is a delight, but the middle chunk of the film feels like your garden variety medieval movie. There isn’t a whole lot that reinforces that initial bonkers tone. If the movie had kept that wackiness throughout, it might have at least had something really special to set it apart from the rest of the pack. As it stands, it’s peppered with engaging insanity at the beginning and end. The middle section of the film is a total flatline.
Is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Good?
Even with all of that, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t a total wash. The gonzo fantasy elements are fun on their own, and there are some rare moments where Ritchie’s particular quirks work. The score by Daniel Pemberton is also worth praise, though it is often so assaulting on the soundtrack that you feel like you’re listening to an isolated score track. But, that’s about all there is to recommend. I think it’s fair to call it this year’s Snow White and the Huntsman: good production with some eccentric style, but a mostly bland and unfocused fairy tale reappropriation.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens on May 12 in the US and May 19 in the UK.