The film errs on the side of gloopy CG confrontations and thin characterization, especially in its drearily predictable grand finale, but is otherwise fantasy filmmaking done up with pleasurable genre resonances. Its murky opening, quietly drifting across foggy green hills while mysterious magic erupts in the distance reminds me of nothing less than John Boorman’s brilliantly bonkers sci-fi Zardoz crossed with his Arthurian take, Excalibur. Fire blasts forth and a ginormous battle involves a king jumping his horse from a parapet onto an elephantine platform. This noble hero king (Eric Bana) is victorious, but abruptly betrayed by a nefarious usurper (Jude Law) who covets the crown (and works on self-taught Dark Arts, hoping to one day graduate to master Firestarter). A tiny orphaned prince is floated down the river – Moses style, in this never-ending parade of legendary allusions – and raised in a blisteringly rapid-fire montage that takes him from naïve boy taken in by kind criminals to a tough, streetwise brawler. Grown (into Charlie Hunnam), he’s as quick with his quips as he is with his fists, all swaggering confidence even when he’s doubting himself, like when that sword comes out of the stone and the kingdom’s revolutionaries (led by Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) scoop him up into their plots against the evil reigning o’er the land.
Generally easy going and light on its feet, despite plodding inevitably to a dull, clangorous climactic confrontation, Ritchie goes all in on his stylish energy. His films, good, bad, and in between (like this one), manage to be at once rough-and-tumble and smooth operators. He fills this telling with snap zooms, propulsive smash cuts, speed ramping, and zippy, fluid, computer-assisted dipping, spinning, and flying establishing shots. He also draws on his Rubik’s-cube-jumbled approach to what in other hands would be conventional setups and payoffs. Instead of long sequences of exposition leading up to bursts of action, he will often intercut the two, cross-cutting speeches and arguments and planning with execution. We see Arthur and his band of would-be heroes devise a trip into a monster-filled wasteland where he must learn to control his magic sword by placing it on a magic rock, their words carrying over as the soundtrack to a lightning fast montage of creature feature derring-do. This gives the picture a jumpy jangle, at once ponderously mythic and casually loping. No one has time to catch their breath between spasms of style, but the movie somehow accrues a sense of heavy sag.
It never quite finds a way to reconcile these competing tendencies, but as a Ritchie romp – co-written, photographed, scored, and edited by some of his familiar collaborators – it never quite loses its loose-limbed charms either. They’re there jolting and jumping underneath even the stateliest fantasy tropes, production design from Game of Thrones vets turned slightly askew, like when the Lady in the Lake appears to pull Arthur through an impossibly deep mud puddle in a dime-store adventure version of a memorably gross Trainspotting swim. So, it’s not totally satisfying. But it’s also not every day you see a movie that straight-faced sends its hero into battle against Rodents of Unusual Size, or includes a moment when a growling Jude Law cuts off a man’s ear and whispers one last threat into it. Those are the sorts of charming eccentricities of which these dusty big-budget boondoggles could use more.