Guy Ritchie's re-telling of the King Arthur story highlights many of the director's strengths... and a few of his weaknesses
Guy Ritchie is a filmmaker who excels within his wheelhouse: character-driven, quick-paced, action comedies. This obviously includes British gangster faire, which he is notorious for, but is by no means limited to it. Take, for instance, Sherlock Holmes. A big blockbuster movie, but one that played to all his strengths: character-driven, fast, and funny. A few action set-pieces thrown in for good measure, but nothing sprawling, everything concentrated and contained. Compare that to its sequel, Game of Shadows, and we see his style fail him. A bigger, more expansive story with less character time, and a less successful product. In his latest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, we see this dichotomy under a magnifying glass.
As is requisite of the high fantasy genre, we are treated to big sprawling battle scenes. Ritchie is echoing Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings a little too strongly here. Even to the point of having bad guys riding on the backs of giant elephants, and tall stone towers that emanate red-orange light. The inevitable comparisons to Jackson are unfavorable for the most part. Simply because Ritchie doesn't shoot it as well.
With Jackson we always know the stakes, it feels like these things have weight. With Ritchie, we don't get this. We are dropped so quickly in to the thick of his version of medieval England (the first scene is an apocalyptic battle) that we don't fully understand the magnitude of the events playing out, or why we should care. This problem recurs throughout the movie, any time the scale of the action grows beyond twenty or so people battling it out, the film loses all focus or sense of weight. Consequently, the opening of the the first act, and the closing of the third act are weak.
However, there is still a lot of good movie here. Everything from Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) being adopted by prostitutes through to the end of the second act really moves. It feels like a completely different movie. It feels like a Guy Ritchie movie. Arthur in this iteration has grown up as a hustler. He is a conman with a heart of gold. When he crosses the wrong set of people he gets sent to Camelot where every man of a certain age has to attempt to pull the sword from the stone.
This is the order of the evil king Vortigern (Jude Law), a dark mage who betrayed and killed Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). Uther was able to get Arthur to safety before his death, but Vortigern still ascended the throne. On being mortally wounded by Vortigern, Uther stabbed himself with Excalibur, and turned in to the legendary stone from which same must be pulled. Knowing that the true King is out there, Vortigern orders that every man of a certain age must attempt to pull the sword, so that he can root out and kill the Pendragon heir.
As per legend, Arthur is the one who does it, and this immediately puts his head on the chopping block. He is quickly rescued by an underground resistance movement, headed by a good mage (played by Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) sent by (a conspicuously absent) Merlin. Arthur reluctantly teams up with them to overthrow Vortigern. All the while he wrestles with his call to destiny, however his street smarts and network of personal connections seem to make him a natural leader.
Everything with the resistance in the second act plays to Ritchie's strengths, and it's hugely fun to watch. Arthur and his criminal friends (Kingsley Ben-Adir and Neil Maskell) feel like stock guy Ritchie characters, bantering in regional British accents, and coming up with cunning plans. When they're grouped with the more straight-laced resistance fighters (Including Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen and Freddie Fox), they bounce nicely off their poe-facedness. Their scheming is illustrated in trademark fast paced cuts. It all builds to an attempted assassination scene in the second act that is nothing short of thrilling. Featuring sword-fights, parkour, Trainspotting-style running-cams, and little-to-no obvious CGI. A brilliant feat of action cinema.
It's also worth noting that the cast is pleasantly diverse. Yes, the leads are white males, but in Arthur's group of cohorts, over half of his crew are non-white or female. Admittedly, the female characters are given less to do. Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey's mage character exists with little personality and is largely there as a plot device. Beyond that, assorted whores get beaten, and princesses either spy or get stabbed. So it's not all good news. That said, Bill Wu's turn as George is great, and he manages to not be a raging stereotype despite being the crew's Kung-Fu specialist. No mean feat.
It's a shame that the enjoyable, thrilling, middle of this film is book-ended by sequences that are so dry and vanilla. The magical macguffinery is generic, the big battle scenes are dry, and the eventual climax is so full of CGI you'd swear you were watching someone play a video game. Charlie Hunnam is a fun leading man, particularly in his lighter moments; Jude Law delivers the Jude Law performance we all know and (some of us) love at this point; and the supporting cast are all pulling their weight. Even David Beckham, surprisingly. Joby Harold and Guy Ritchie's screenplay is full of fun dialogue, but two of the bigger action scenes in the movie fall completely flat, and Arthur's inner conflict is a little… stock. In short, this is a movie that, while commendable, you can probably wait to see on DVD or Netflix. Plenty of fun in the right places, but not something you need to rush to see.