I feel like I should’ve enjoyed King Arthur: Legend of the Sword more than I did. While it may give off the vibe of yet another dark and gritty adaptation of an IP, a lot of the reference points for Guy Ritchie’s latest film is more along the lines of silly, low budget sword-and-sorcery junk from the 80s like The Beastmaster, Hawk the Slayer or The Sword and the Sorcerer. It’s full of strange imagery and baffling moments, like the occasional hallucinatory appearances of a villainous character who looks like General Kael from Willow, or in the scenes where we watch Jude Law’s Vortigern talk to a group of squid-ladies in his castle’s basement, and they’re exactly as sudden and insane as it sounds. I can dig that.
But for some reason, as time passes on since seeing the film, after the initial high had subsided, it just didn’t hold up to snuff as it did when I left the theater. And even then, I thought the film was simply passable at best. It doesn’t help that the cold open through the opening credits, probably the first ten minutes or so, is awful. Like, straight up, damn near unwatchable. Most of it was due to the headache inducing editing, which made the film legitimately hard to look at.
Thankfully, after the opening credits are done with, the film does settle down and finds a groove, but it still doesn’t feel smooth. The choppy editing, while not as obnoxious as the opening, still often rear its ugly head. The film has a habit of cutting to our characters in a certain place or position, and it will cut in how they got there. It’s a technique that’s been done before, sure, but there’s no flow to its use here. It always feels random and unnecessary, never allowing a moment to just relax.
This stylization could be attributed to the eccentricities of co-writer and director, Guy Ritchie, but it never does feel that way. The moments that feel authentically “Guy Ritchie” are few and far between, and those moments are the best in the film, like an exchange that happens between Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) and Jack’s Eye (Michael McElhatton), where Arthur is trying to recount the activities of his day and his possible involvement in some shady activity. It’s funny, fast, charming, and bold in all the ways Guy Ritchie tends to be when he’s at his best, but it takes a long time before another moment like that comes. For the rest of it, the film just feels like any generic fantasy film with some sporadically interesting – if thoroughly (and sometimes mind-numbing) VFX-driven – action.
If anything, the only somewhat interesting thing about the film is how it’s very obviously made in an era of blockbuster filmmaking that is driven by the conceit of creating a universe. Even if you didn’t follow the early reports before production about Ritchie being set to direct an entire series based on the King Arthur legend, it was still pretty clear through the resoundingly modern visual language in the film that is more akin to superhero films than older sword-and-sorceries. However, unlike other films with the same goals, King Arthur doesn’t give you much reason to care or be interested in more stories. The worldbuilding isn’t particularly good, the characters are mostly one-note, and nothing is really left to explore. It never even focuses on the iconic images that made the Arthurian mythos so instantly compelling, aside from the sword in the stone. The whole round table element feels like an afterthought, brought in at – quite literally – the very last minute with no real significance attached to it, which is just bizarre.
As far as performances go, Charlie Hunnam is solid enough to carry it, Jude Law is a great mean-mugger and can chew scenery like a boss. Supporting actors like Djimon Hounsou, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and Aidan Gillen, among many others, are fine, but only in the sense that they are making the absolute most out of characters that only really have just one personality trait to go on. There just isn’t much under the surface neither in character, nor in story. In fact, it’s mostly left to the severely underrated composer, Daniel Pemberton, to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of getting you to actually feel something in the film.
I’m not even sure just how a film like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword can end up so muddled and messy despite the fact that the plot is basically the exact same as Hamlet (though it can’t even reach the base emotional resonance of The Lion King for that matter), but that’s just how it is. The Guy Ritchie swagger that I really love only comes into play a few times, but that same sense of fun is nowhere to be found, even with it’s dopey fantastical elements, leaving the rest feel so cinematically and dramatically inert. Perhaps, it could’ve helped if the film had more a color palette than the fifty shades of grey that blankets over every single scene. Unlike most people, I was actually looking forward to this, so I’m disappointed that I didn’t like it more. The film is – for the most part – watchable enough, but I feel no need to ever revisit this again.
Now…can I please get that Man From U.N.C.L.E. sequel?