The tale of King Arthur is a cultural touchstone that has passed from generation to generation for as long as anyone can remember. It’s an endearingly strange tale full of magic swords, ladies of the lake and powerful sorcerers, a myth that’s served as the basis for countless fantasy fables. Writer-director Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes”), continuing his streak of turning older properties into sleek and witty adaptations, takes a shot at this classic tale with “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”, injecting it with a grimy and witty personality to varying degrees of success.
Following Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”) as he discovers his kingly heritage and battles to reclaim the throne from his treacherous uncle Vortigern (Jude Law, “Sherlock Holmes”), this take on the king’s origin story takes a distinctly Ritchian approach. Trading in Arthur’s chivalrous and sappy upbringing, setting him up as a cocky but good-hearted gangster raised in a brothel, allows Ritchie to play with the famous story as well its style and tone. Ritchie, whose career started in roguishly over-the-top London gangster films, has all his tropes on display here: highly kinetic and fast-cut montages, Cockney banter and heavily stylized violence. For the most part, it works. Arthur’s story has never felt so mindlessly entertaining or provocative, and the film is the most fun when it lets Ritchie truly be himself.
The film wanders into messy territory, however, when it’s forced to buy into the conventions of the fantasy genre. The studio heads who gave the okay to Ritchie clearly wanted this to be the jumping off point for a new “Lord of the Rings” type franchise, and as a result the film’s third act sees it trying to emulate those films with CGI-ridden, borderline incoherent battle scenes. The action doesn’t work as well beyond the street-level thuggery seen in the earlier parts of the plot, feeling more like an over-stylized video game than a true fantasy film. Other fantasy properties like “Game of Thrones” do these kind of scenes successfully because they are patient and balanced in their pacing. “King Arthur” just goes off the rails and it’s impossible to tell where the rails even were.
While the film can be a mess, it’s often so much fun that it’s easy to overlook. Hunnam and Law both chew up the scenery here, with Hunnam providing an effortlessly cool foil to Law’s gloriously sinister (and slightly odd) characterization. Blockbuster films are suffering from a serious villain problem as of late, and while he is underused, Law is on the top of his game in every scene as he crafts a complex and entertaining antagonist that feels like a legitimate threat to Arthur and his band of warriors. The earlier action scenes and Ritchie-style montages are infectious, easily some of the most entertaining takes on big-budget tropes in quite some time. Best of all is Daniel Pemberton’s (“Steve Jobs”) extremely memorable and rollicking score, a folk-metal pastiche rife with frantic breathing and cacophonic blends of strings and percussion. It’s without a doubt the biggest success of the film, and easily one of the finest genre soundtracks in recent memory.
Bombarded by a flurry of negative reviews and a poor box office performance, “King Arthur” is perplexingly misunderstood film. It might be a mess, but the thing is that it knows it is and runs with it. Despite some obvious studio intrusion and an overstuffing of ideas, it’s a dynamic and naturally charming adventure. It’s a popcorn film if there ever was one, and in the era of increasingly dull action titles, it’s one we may desperately need.