This has become a surprisingly hard review to write. I can’t think if a time when my personal opinion of a film was more divergent from relatively object measures of its quality. Because I kind of loved King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but I also think it is mostly a bad movie. It has proven somewhat difficult to untangle my feelings toward.
This is not a case like John Carter or Guy Ritchie’s previous movie, The Man from UNCLE; those were movies that, though they bombed, I thought and still think are excellent films. King Arthur is undeniably kind of a mess. Its different parts don’t mix together well and some of its biggest moments fall completely flat. But I still greatly enjoyed watching.
Charlie Hunnam stars as Arthur, who grew up in a brothel after his uncle, King Vortigern, overthrew and killed his father using black magic. Growing up in the brothel, Arthur has become a streetwise hustler and grifter. He learned to fight thanks to the local, Medieval Londinium Kung Fu master and he knows which wheels to grease to keep things running smoothly. That is until the sword in the stone is found and the prophecy of the born king triggers unrest in the kingdom. Arthur is forced to take up the sword and fulfill his destiny as King.
There are two movies at war in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. There is a ponderous fantasy epic in the vein of Willow or Hercules or, if you squint, Lord of the Rings. Then there is the Guy Ritchie crime movie, him doing his low level criminals getting in over their heads sort of movie like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. These two separate kinds of movies never successfully combine. Neither one subsumes the other, either. When Jude Law is the focus, it is the most serious sort of fantasy movie. When it turns to Hunnam and his ragtag knights, it goes full Ritchie. I like both kinds of movies here, and I enjoyed the juxtaposition. There are a few scenes that mix the two, the highlight being a quest to the completely undefined “dark realm” that is done almost entirely to loud music and quick cuts. It is barely comprehensible, but that is the point. It is a strange, revelatory adventure in an unknown place. It is purposefully disorienting. And since there is little drama in wondering if the title character will survive a mid-movie adventure, it is gotten through with quickly. Unfortunately, the two different movies can’t be bridged at the end, when it should all come together.
The best parts are the one that lean into Ritchie’s filmmaking idiosyncrasies. The bits with Arthur telling a story or laying a plan that are accompanied by shots of how things are exactly like he says/are the exact opposite of how he says. It is the same kind of fun stuff that made Snatch such a delight. It is hard to ramp that up to a more traditional epic showdown, which this movie has and it is a big letdown.
As much as I enjoyed this movie, which was a lot, I could never shake the feeling that things just weren’t working. The movie skips over things, sometimes to streamline not particularly interesting yet necessary plot points, sometimes it makes things appear to happen out of nowhere. The situation that leads to Arthur’s rise is never really shown, just assumed.
In the end, what matters to me is that I enjoyed this movie. I caters directly to my tastes. I enjoy every ingredient found in this movie’s recipe, even if the end result is less than the sum of its parts.