‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ is sometimes fun, but mostly messy
Guy Ritchie can’t get out of his own way, making for a choppy, rushed, and confusing take on the Arthurian legend
Somewhere buried inside Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a really great epic. The action and effects are mostly excellent and Charlie Hunnam is perfectly cast as the title character, the roguish king-to-be thrust into a quest to reclaim his throne. In the hands of anyone else, the idea of launching a new take on the legend of King Arthur would have felt tired and done and unnecessary, but the idea of Guy Ritchie bringing his particular brand to telling the story had a certain appeal. Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have owned the market on epic medieval fantasy franchises for the last 15 years, and while there have certainly been some attempts (see 2004’s King Arthur), really no other medieval fantasy-type franchises have been able to successfully launch. Guy Ritchie’s take on King Arthur, though? That sounds like something that could bring some fresh energy to the genre, and maybe do something new.
Unfortunately, while I was looking forward to Guy Ritchie bringing his sense of style to King Arthur, it actually felt like he was getting in his own way of telling the story. King Arthur is fun, fast, and exciting while also managing to build a dark and fantastic world. We’re quickly brought up to speed on Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), being betrayed by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law), while a young Arthur escapes by boat and is raised outside the kingdom by prostitutes. We’re then treated to a quickly-paced montage of Arthur growing up — learning to fight, making money, and becoming a man of the streets. When Vortigern begins rounding up men of a certain age to attempt to pull a magical sword from a stone, Arthur is captured and taken to the sword in the stone, and so the legend goes. But somehow, this all gets very confusing.
While the pacing quickly gets us into the story, what becomes problematic is that it never slows down. King Arthur has lots of style and lots of substance, but the former muddies the latter. The movie clocks in at about two hours, but three hours-worth of story is condensed into it. There’s world building and character development aplenty, but Ritchie breezes through the story at a mile a minute, rapidly cutting scenes together and jumping around in the timeline, so at best, the audience is just trying to keep up. The substance of the story and the world is there, but we’re never given a chance to actually absorb it.
Hunnam is likable and charming, so it’s fun to watch him play the hero, hatching schemes and laying out plans; but when a scene of him explaining a particular plan is cutting back and forth to the actual execution of the plan, which also hinges on further exposition by way of dialogue…well, it’s unclear what the actual plan was meant to achieve. Imagine if George Clooney laid out a heist plan in Ocean’s Eleven, but didn’t give the audience a moment to stop and appreciate the movie’s cleverness? It felt like that. You knew something clever might be happening, but pausing to process it would just force you to miss something else.
There’s still a lot to like in King Arthur; Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law are both excellent, and the supporting cast includes Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen (best known as Littlefinger on Game of Thrones, but here he gets to play a very different role) among others. The action is fun, and the music by Daniel Pemberton is pretty incredible, with a sort of tribal-war-drums-meets-bluegrass-twang sound that brings a sense of rhythm to the action scenes.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was originally planned as the first of a six-film series, which sounded exhaustively ambitious before seeing how this first film was received. Now even more so. It’s unfortunate that choppy exposition and pacing got in the way, because there’s a lot in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur that could and sometimes does go right in terms of establishing an interesting world to build a franchise on — the movie just never slows down long enough for us to understand or appreciate it.