Guy Ritchie seems bored. His King Arthur is a film that cannot sit still, edited to feel like something watched in fast forward. And yet, somehow it’s still two hours long, not only a hyperactive music video, but a bloated one.
It is, however, fun at parts. The whole thing has a welcomely brash attitude toward its nerdy magic elements. There are creatures galore. One of the first things Richie shows us are possessed kaiju-sized elephants laying waste to a castle stronghold. His signature editing style lends itself well to dialogue heavy plotting scenes, as out of place as it feels in this story. And since laughter is the best medicine, his usage of music, if nothing else, definitely earn some guffaws. At one point Charlie Hunnam yells in slow motion, and a lion's roar comes out of his mouth. So it's not all bad.
But this is not a Gods of Egypt-caliber anomaly. It’s not even up to 2014 Hercules’ standard. Instead it’s a slog with occasional good parts, strutting along like a cocksure jock who doesn’t know he has a “kick me” sign on his back.
Perhaps it would help if the modern treatment of this classic legend weren't so familiar. We have a prince cast into poverty after his parents are murdered by his uncle (Jude Law). By sheer virtue of his fist-bumping awesomeness, the orphaned waif turns into street-wise saver of prostitutes Charlie Hunnam, who is eventually forced to seize his fate by drawing Excalibur from the legendary stone and save England by taking it back from the wicked jerk in charge.
If you have problems with “Refusal of the Call” heroes, this movie is going to be rough for you. Hunnam’s Arthur has no interest in the sword and yanks it only at the end of another. It takes him almost the entire movie to wield it because it gets into his brain and makes him relive his parents’ deaths whenever he tries. (You will see Arthur's mom get killed more than in all the Batman movies combined.) Even when the film is near its final act, he’s throwing the thing away.
But he can’t. Because in this version of the legend, that sword turns him into a superhero with powers over speed-ramping and possibly tornadoes. I’m not sure how exactly it works, but emphasis on the sword is such that Arthur seems a little worthless without it, just one of many reasons why King Arthur is better taken as an accidental, unofficial He-Man movie.
After his revelatory performance in The Lost City of Z, it’s disappointing to see Charlie Hunnam return to lumpy bro normalcy here. The actor occasionally achieves moments of levity and charm, but for the most part he’s a swaggering cologne ad. His crew, headlined by Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen, also go through the motions of what’s expected from a movie like this. Jude Law’s clearly having fun as the evil Vortigern, but he’s certainly not taxing his abilities with the role.
Some characters offer bright spots, though more in conception than execution. I enjoyed Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s The Mage, if only because it’s cool to have a movie with a lady who can control animals, and who am I to not love the fact that Tom Wu plays a character whose name (and I’m not kidding about this) is Kung Fu George?
If only that spirit of stupid insanity ran all the way through this film’s DNA instead of just on the surface. While I will grant a kind of authorial singularity to what Guy Ritchie does here, it’s simply not wild or entertaining enough to turn this bland exercise into something unique enough to justify. It also doesn’t help that the action scenes are atrocious. The comprehensible ones look like video game cut scenes. The practical ones are far too cut up to follow.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a February movie dressed up with a coat of summer tentpole paint. Its idiosyncratic touches can’t save it from its own mediocrity. If only the whole movie had been about Kung Fu George.