King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a film that leaves you thinking Guy Ritchie could have made a fun Robin Hood, or just as easily could have made a painful Tolkien adaptation. Running over two hours, and costing a reported $175 million, it could use a drastic trim on both. At its viral video-ready conceit of “What if Guy Ritchie made a King Arthur movie?”, it works fairly if predictably well enough. But in doubling as a summer tentpole, it’s weighed down in its CGI, supernatural mythology, and exposition, pushing Arthur’s head down near the depths of Dracula: Untold. The movie would benefit from being as utterly fatless as its lead.
Charlie Hunnam stars in the title role, and it’s a welcome departure from his first and forgettable blockbuster leading man role in Pacific Rim. The British actor pulls of Ritchie’s coarse dialogue and working class swagger with the requisite aplomb. His Arthur is the archetype of the Reluctant Hero—a cocky, ignoble but loyal hustler who doesn’t want to be a savior and certainly not a king. Like Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, he frequently shows off his abs in shirtless, organized brawls. And like a cockney Moses, he was sent away alone down a river and raised by strangers. He’s only made aware of his royal lineage—due place on the throne—when a wildly distracting David Beckham cameo leads to Arthur plucking the fabled Excalibur from a stone.
That discovery too-slowly leads Arthur on a secular crusade against his king/uncle, Jude Law’s Vortigern. A villain equal parts Shakespearean and Nazi surrogate, Vortigern murdered his own brother to take the throne, which he defends with an army of black-clad stormtroopers and extremely unsubtle fascist imagery. Law, his hairline gradually tugging him back into more scenery-chewing character roles, does his best with what he’s given. His antagonist is an underwritten cliché, but you’d rather see him in a sequel than most Marvel bad guys.
The film’s subtitle, Legend of the Sword, does prove truthful in its advertising. There are many, many visions involving the sword’s backstory, and Excalibur’s undefined powers lead to several effects-heavy sequences that resemble a video game’s “special move” animation more than a film. And it brings us to a climax that likewise looks like a video game boss battle, pitting generic-looking man-with-sword against the hulking embodiment of a Frank Frazetta painting. (Despite lacking an actual Merlin, the movie invokes magic constantly, and all its spells seems to do is control over-sized animals and invoke said Frazetta imagery.)
Naturally, as its subtitle also suggests, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has designs on becoming a King Arthur franchise. After the film’s story is tidily wrapped up, it ends in an epilogue hinting at what’s to come. Without giving anything away, Arthur remains thoroughly Ritchian in his demeanor as, in these closing moments, he sits at a table casually picking at food and spouting insults. It’s perhaps meant to serve as contrast to the film’s grandiose prologue, which appears as generic and overblown as so many a summer blockbuster. (Surely not coincidentally, the first Ritchie affectation smacks you exactly upon his opening direction credit.) But if it means he thinks he’s shrugged off enough tentpole trappings by his finale, he’s mistaken. This thing desperately needs a trim, even as Arthur’s cool-guy haircut somehow never does.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Director: Guy Ritchie
Studio: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 126 minutes
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Eric Bana