King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t really about King Arthur. It’s more the origin story of a boy named Arthur, one who will eventually become a king. So it’s fitting that the best parts of the film have nothing to do with swords, kingdoms, knights, or anything like that. King Arthur is primarily a medieval gangster film, and that’s when the movie is at its best.
Arthur is a swindler and a scoundrel, one who wields power and intimidates his peers and equals, but always has a likable charm. Director Guy Ritchie, best known for gangster films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, takes the style and locomotion of those films and infuses it with the spectacle seen in his big Sherlock Holmes films. The result is a kind of uneven, but entertaining movie that’s way better than people are expecting.
When King Arthur is just about Arthur (played as an adult by Pacific Rim’s Charlie Hunnam), Ritchie is in his element. There are dynamic character interactions, lots of energy, fast-cut montages, and precise dialogue. The director begins the grandiose story of King Arthur, with all its magic and legend, in a grounded, gritty reality. Ritchie puts it all together with a supreme confidence.
Where the film is a little less confident is when it has to live up to Arthurian mythology, albeit a modified version of it. That mythology has to do with Arthur’s uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), who kills Arthur’s father (Eric Bana) when Arthur is a baby. Arthur is sent off on his own, raised in a brothel, and becomes a ground-level gangster. That story is told with a well-paced prologue leading into the first of the economical montages that set up everything else. However, after that world is set, Arthur is forced to pull his father’s sword from the stone and when he does, things get a little murky.
There’s lots of magic, lots of flying animals, CG snakes, slow-motion sword fights, and it’s 50/50 between passable and cringe-inducing. However, Ritchie has given Arthur’s story such a solid base that as the film gets increasingly more crazy, there’s a solid chance you’ll have already been hooked into the story and characters. If you are, the rest of the movie works. If you aren’t, well, things get pretty weird.
As Arthur dives deeper and deeper into this world where his Excalibur exhibits superhero abilities, wizards can see through the eyes of birds, and more, the film tends to lose some of its focus. Things shift from a Guy Ritchie movie to a Peter Jackson spectacle on a dime and it doesn’t always work; for example, you might get giant walking elephants in one scene, but then an intricate heist plot the next. However, just when things start to get a little too crazy, Ritchie shrinks Arthur’s story to a more manageable size, and Arthur’s quest to defeat his uncle never becomes to a 10,000-person CG battle.
Along the way, that progression reveals how Arthur, at first resistant to his destiny, grows into it. Plus, as an added bonus, the film even goes so far as to give Law’s villainous, murderous King Vortigern some depth with his own sense of morality and flaws (you know, beyond murdering his brother). We see the story from both sides. It doesn’t totally work and feels forced at moments, but in the end it’s another mark in the movie’s “good” column.
For the most part, I think King Arthur: Legend of the Sword succeeds. Ritchie’s style and this material don’t always mesh, but when they do, the film is definitely entertaining. Even when Richie’s style doesn’t quite fit, the film still manages to keep its head above water just enough to keep you engaged. For instance, there are two or three action beats in King Arthur that are very shaky, but still wow with their ideas and intention. So even when the film is struggling, it still swings for the fences, and I like that about it. If nothing else, it’s exciting to see Guy Ritchie doing Guy Ritchie again, even if he needs to throw in an occasional armor-crusted monster to the mix.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens this Friday, May 12.