There is really only one definitive movie about the legend of King Arthur: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Every other adaptation has struggled to capture the gravitas and majesty of one of literature’s most famous heroes. There have been interesting adaptations, like John Boorman’s beautiful but empty “Excalibur.” And there have been God-awful adaptations, like the laughable “First Knight” starring Richard Gere. Director Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes”) has brought his kinetic filmmaking style to the Arthurian legend, and the results are both messy and mesmerizing.
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is the son of a brave king who unfortunately gets the Hamlet treatment. Instead of poison in the ear, his wicked brother, Vortigern (the always wonderful Jude Law), sacrifices his wife to get some awesome magical powers and goes on a murder spree. It leaves poor Arthur afloat on a river and discovered by a gaggle of prostitutes. The hard streets of Londinium make Arthur hard. He becomes a keen thief, a skilled fighter and a cunning businessman—and he amasses a number of devoted ne’er-do-wells he calls “friends.”
King Vortigern is dealing with many demons—some literal and some figurative. He’s sold his soul to the devil but still has to fear his nephew, Arthur, who has escaped and is capable of wielding the magical sword, Excalibur—the only thing that can defeat him. After the sword reveals itself to the kingdom, still wedged in stone, Vortigern sends out a decree for every able-bodied man of the right age to extract the legendary weapon. Arthur, unaware of his lineage, is able to pull out the large, throbbing sword but he can’t wield it. It’s a classic case of premature extraction.
Before Arthur can wrap his head around the concept of destiny and royal life, he’s whisked into an ancient conflict between good and evil. The king wants him dead. The resistance wants him to help lead a revolt. Arthur just wants to go back to being a medieval pimp. (Life ain’t easy in ancient England.) After begrudgingly joining the resistance, Arthur assembles a team of troublemakers to take on his duplicitous uncle.
There are a lot of fun moments in “King Arthur”: big, epic fantasy-action set pieces filled with colorful, albeit utterly forgettable, characters. Other than Jude Law’s wonderfully tragic villain, the entire cast feels kind of wasted. Lots of good actors do their best to make the most out of an extremely threadbare plot. There are also a lot of baffling moments. Over-the-top, laughable special effects clash horribly with practical elements of production. Beautiful vistas and scenery make parts of the story seem very real, paired with some awful virtual cinematography that looks insanely cheap. Great action scenes bungle strange Gopro-style camera placement. There’s a kitchen-sink style to this new “King Arthur” that makes everything feel a little forced.
I like Guy Ritchie. He makes extremely entertaining movies for the most part, but he’s never really mastered the art of drama. The man knows how to make something fun and his unconventional approach to action has created some interesting scenes over the years. For example, his methodical fight sequences in “Sherlock Holmes” combines intriguing camera work with internal character monologue. He’s a director known more for style than substance, like 2015’s highly entertaining “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” exposes both Ritchie’s strengths and weaknesses, and even really fun moments, but the stakes never feel particularly high. The movie gives us one-and-a-half engaging characters and a whole lot of forgettable supporting cast.
I thought a lot about “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” which is eerily similar in plot, structure and character. It’s a medieval movie with a lot of fun characters but manages to give everyone only a moment or two to shine. So many characters in “King Arthur” pointlessly have been included. At the film’s conclusion, Arthur begins to name his famous Knights of the Round Table. One or two of them barely had a line in the movie. A supposedly epic moment falls flat because viewers can’t muster an ounce of care for characters they don’t know.
The film’s opening scene sums up the movie well: A giant battle sequence features 300-foot-tall elephants. Massive mastodons smash through the landscape and destroy everything in their path. It’s a gigantic cacophony of beautiful destruction that feels utterly pointless.