Review: ‘King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword’

King Arthur has a story that changes depending on who is telling it. From campfire tales to Mark Twain, King Arthur has been interpreted and reinterpreted too many times to keep track. From page to silver screen notable actors Richard Harris (Camelot), Sean Connery (First Knight), and Clive Owen (2004’s King Arthur) have played the king to varying degrees of success. For 2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword the Arthurian legend is reinvented once again by UK’s Guy Ritchie, who punches up the story with a castle besieged by towering elephants and sword and sorcery action.

Hold on a sec, elephants?

Don’t worry. While the marketing of Ritchie’s movie would have us assume that Legend of the Sword is a sweeping spectacle the likes of The Lord of the Rings (which it is to a degree), those elephants are seen briefly and feel like millions wasted in post-production for a few minutes of screen time. Be that as it may, Guy Ritchie approaches the Arthurian legend with a vision that either works or doesn’t for viewers. Much like the manner in how he approached another Arthur (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes), Ritchie adds sly humor on top of frenetic action.

This version of Arthur’s origin story is vintage Guy Ritchie with all the hallmarks and nods we’ve come to expect from the director.

Because there is no canonical King Arthur story, Ritchie is free to pick and choose what he wants for his own origin tale. Excalibur, the famed sword in the stone is here (obviously), as is Uther Pendragon, The Lady of the Lake, and Vortigern. Merlin the Magician is referenced but is briefly seen. Lancelot and Gallahad will have to wait for the sequel – if there is one.

Those familiar with Ritchie’s style know that he approaches his narratives with his tongue planted firmly in cheek. Legend of the Sword does not offer the serious tones of say John Boorman’s Excalibur, but it’s not a Monty Python farce either. An inbetweener with kinetic energy, we begin when Arthur is just a child. His father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), rules over Camelot and valiantly defeats the dark mage Mordred. Safe from the danger outside of the kingdom, Uther falls victim of his own blood, as his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) orchestrates a coup that leaves Arthur’s parents dead and him smuggled out of Camelot to be raised in a brothel in Londinium.

We get to see Arthur’s upbringing in quick-editing fashion (a Ritchie trademark) as the boy pilfers gold shillings, is beaten up by the bigger kids – until he’s old enough to fight back – and looks after the “ladies of the night” who helped raised him. As an adult (Charlie Hunnam), Arthur is brought back to Camelot like all the other males of similar age to test his might and see if he can pull the sword Excalibur from a stone. This is a test for Vortigern to find his lost nephew. Arthur completes the task but is not invited to the family picnic; he’s sentenced to be executed. Planning and following through with the act gets complicated when Arthur is aided by one of Merlin’s mages (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), the knight Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), and Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen) in escape and reluctantly joins his rescuers in plotting to stop Vortigern’s reign.

At two hours in length Guy Ritchie guides us through the exposition with little in the way of breaks. The key is to prevent the audience from getting restless, which he does in fine fashion. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is far from boring, but Ritchie can rely on his medieval magic book of movie-making trickery only so much. The narrative relies on Charlie Hunnam to carry the weight of the movie. Best known as Jax from FX’s Sons of Anarchy Hunnam is making the transition to features and I fear he may be turning into Taylor Kitsch (best remembered as Tim Riggins from NBC’s Friday Night Lights) in terms of being over-exposed as a leading star. In 2012, Kitsch starred in three films over a four-month span (John Carter, Battleship, and Savages). The first was intended to be a multiple-pic franchise much like this summer tentpole. It bombed and Kitsch’s rising star status dropped hard. The slotting of King Arthur just weeks after The Lost City of Z (both headlined by Hunnam) may be seen as a knock against him, unfortunately.

Hunnam does an okay job as Arthur, but it is Jude Law who is the real star as the villainous Vortigern. Slithering his way into darkly colored regalia – an about face to the devil in sheep’s clothing he wore as The Young Pope – Law is in rarefied form. All those wasted performances in the hero role, who knew Law was best suited to play the bad guy. He’s not to the level of aping Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) mind you but does deliver an impressive turn.

Those scoffing at another depiction of the Arthurian legend just picture Guy Ritchie as the surrogate mom to a child carrying the cinematic DNA of Ron Howard’s Willow and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. It’s got magic and might, treachery and battle scenes galore. And while it may be me reaching, you can even draw some parallels to Law’s Vortigern and a certain commander in chief. Ritchie’s style may not be everybody’s cup of tea, yet I am totally on board with his interpretation of King Arthur’s origin. Legend of the Sword dazzles the eyes and plays like a $200 million role-playing game.

Director: Guy Ritchie
Writer: Guy Ritchie, Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Eric Bana
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language)
Running Time: 126 minutes

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