King Arthur: Legend of the Sword starts with elephants the size of castles and ends with snakes the size of rivers and there isn’t much sandwiched in between that’s any less ridiculous. A monochromatic mess replete with sketchy, video game-esque CGI and an often out of focus, mangled 3D conversion, Guy Ritchie’s bonkers fantasy film ditches the legend of the sword in the stone of yore for something that feels equally indebted to Heavy Metal and Shadow of Mordor cut scenes.
Charlie Hunnam is the titular Arthur whose birthright as King has been stolen by nefarious uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), a closeted mage who executes the classic “Hamlet” maneuver to seize power for himself. A character defined at any point by what he’s wearing down the red carpet, Vortigern sports a wardrobe that exists somewhere between Ned Stark and The Clash. He can also transform into a kind of Johnny Blaze flaming skull demigod who whips around a double scythe like Rock Hard Death incarnate. Still on board?
The reenvisioning from screenwriters Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram and Ritchie has wee Arthur growing up in a brothel, a kind of local Robin Hood who protects prostitutes from the more handsy johns and scraps with Vikings needing a civility lesson. Focused on loading his coffers and elbowing just the right smear of influence where needed, Arthur displays little interest in rallying power to his cause, mostly because he doesn’t know of any claim to the throne. The friendly, neighborhood swordsman winds up pulling sword from stone accidentally, when he, like the rest of the abled bodied men in the kingdom, is forced to have a go at the immovable object the treacherous Vortigern desires so.
As it does the lore upon which it is based, the film plays fast and loose with narrative propulsion, arching forward in swift bows at times – there are a few montages that’ll leave you scratching head, unsure if what you’ve just witnessed is some of the dumbest material to hit the screen this year or actually pretty cool (it’s really a mix of both) – and at other times slowing into a butt-numbing bore. When Ritchie occasionally giving a scene room to breathe, there is fleeting magic to be found. An early exchange between Arthur and a local lawman (Michael McElhatton) is deeply reminiscent of early Ritchie (Snatch, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrells) complete with snappy editing, clever misunderstandings, amusing narration and lots of confused parties.
Mileage earned for smart, zippy sequences like this are undone by moments where everything drips into hallowed nothingness. Arthur spends more than enough time rejecting his savior role but pretty much all of his characterization is of the cardboard cutout variety. Many of his companions fare much worse. While Game of Thrones alum Aidan Gillen is visibly enjoying himself as a skilled escape artist and archer known as Goosefat Bill, his character gets the shaft and kind of disappears into the ether. Djimon Hounsou, who seems contractually required to appear in every sword and sandal sandbox since Gladiator, adds little to the mix but it’s Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s nameless Mage who remains the most problematic. The role is not quite unplayable (though it wouldn’t do many actresses any favors) but Frisbey is lost, her eyes rolled back in her head, stammering through lame exposition with some unplaceable accent.
For all the lame characterization and generally ugly visual spread, King Arthur still manages to smuggle in more ridiculous fun than it really has any right to. Whether Arthur is staving off R.O.U.S.es in the Darklands or paling around with Wet Stick or Back Lack (Kingsley Ben-Adir and Neil Maskell respectively, the only two side characters with a shred of personality), Ritchie and his long-time editor James Herbert create movie-going mirth where none might otherwise exist. Wackadoo creature design that includes the various aforementioned beasts and an awesomely sketchy mermaid swamp creature helps keep you onboard when everything in your brain is telling you to tune out.
Ritchie taps into a similarly bombastic spread for his action sequences as he did in the Sherlock Holmes series, riffling between slo-mo and super speed and demanding your weary eyes keep up with the eye-candy explosions at work. There is nowhere near the style, wit and character Ritchie presented with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. nor is King Arthur a Swept Away or even Revolver-sized fiasco. It’s not wholly a success by any measures and will likely torpedo at the box office and receive a critical scalping but there’s something to be said about how weird and wild and totally batshit King Arthur: Legend of the Sword dares to be. Commendations should be expended for Ritchie going as balls to the walls as he has here, chipping source material away to reveal a marbled middle finger erected firmly to tradition.
CONCLUSION: Brassy and bold in spirit but a hot mess in execution, ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ suffers middling special effects, a more-boring-than-it-should-be plot and mostly lame, forgettable characters but must be commended for its unchecked hardcore fantasy bombast and occasionally arresting editing and beefy score.