It was a strong enough opening to make me sit up for a picture that might not bore me to tears with hulky warriors swinging swords in slow motion. It’s just too bad that Ritchie’s snappy direction and wit only comes in the form of small bursts to briefly defibrillate a mostly standard action picture.
Ritchie does load his picture up with enough ridiculous flash and spectacle to please any summer moviegoer. There are mages who turn their eyes different hues as they manipulate animals to attack soldiers. There’s a school of martial arts where Arthur learns the art of fighting and growing really big muscles. The movie states it takes place in Londinium, but it must be adjacent to Monster Island as oversized elephants, birds and pythons charge into castles and lay waste to hordes of armies. Mythic figures crowd the screen, from the lady of the lake that hands Arthur his sword to a tentacle beast that tempts those who want power.
How can a movie have all this, while shirking nearly all historical accuracy, and still appear as bland and paint-by-numbers as any other summer movie about knights and kingdoms? Maybe Ritchie should’ve added in a giant robot for good measure. You know, one made of stone and powered by magic so it seems slightly in style with the era.
Stepping into the role of Arthur is the muscle-bound Charlie Hunnam, tasked with playing a character that is equal parts brave warrior and quick-witted strategist. You can probably guess which one he’s better suited towards from his rippling chest and expressionless face. Ritchie’s script certainly gives Hunnam plenty of lines to display how this boy is more than a brainless brute who would be a king, but Hunnam just doesn’t have the charisma to make these snappy lines as amusing as they should be. He’s far better at gaining laughs from his exasperated exhales after defeating a horde of soldiers than trying to be a smartass when detailing his plans of attack.
Also looking the role more than playing it well is Jude Law as the jealous King Vortigern, conspiring with dark magical forces to be a powerful mage and keep Arthur off the throne. He’s not given much to work with here as a quietly sinister tyrant that could stand to be more vicious. So understated is his fury that it must be personified in the form of a flaming CGI warrior rather than watching Law grit his teeth while trading swords with Hunnam. Sure, he’ll slit a throat here, slice an ear there and even kill his own family for more power, but he should be a little more evil in person before he lets the visual effects take over his role.
Joining Arthur in his quest to overthrow the king is a collective cast of great actors who must quietly step aside for when Arthur fights and then step to the front to take an arrow for him. Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen have their moments of charisma that is struggling to escape these supporting roles. So shoved aside were these characters that even Arthur’s lead female assistant of a mage played by Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey is never once referred to by a name other than mage. She seems to only be present to push Arthur along towards the path of becoming a king and to summon magical creatures for the big action sequences. Only from the shadows, of course. We wouldn’t want her to get in the way of all those slow-motion shots of Hunnam.
The film will occasionally break from its predictable course where some of Guy Ritchie’s trademark direction and editing can shine. The obligatory training sequence where Arthur is left to fight in a dark forest is portrayed with non-linear editing, quick cuts and an energetically macho soundtrack. Arthur’s plans of attack are laid out quickly and calculatively with plenty of slick talk and fast visions, echoing Ritchie’s stylization his heist picture Snatch. It’s as if the director is aware of these scenes and does his best to not waste our time with lingering on them for too long. I’ll gladly take a 4-minute montage of Arthur slicing up monsters in the woods as opposed to a 20-minute sequence where the fights are carried out far longer than they should be.