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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Review

May 12, 2017 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Review  

Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Written By: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram and David Dobkin
Runtime: 126 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13

Charlie Hunnam – Arthur Pendragon
Jude Law – Vortigern
Astrid Bergès-Frisbey – The Mage
Djimon Hounsou – Bedivere
Eric Bana – Uther Pendragon
Kingsley Ben-Adir – Wet Stick
Neil Maskell – Back Lack
Aidan Gillen – Goosefat Bill
Annabelle Wallis – Maggie
Tom Wu – George
Geoff Bell – Mischief John
Michael McElhatton – Jack’s Eye
Craig McGinlay – Percival
Freddie Fox – Rubio
Poppy Delevingne – Igraine
Rob Knighton – Mordred

Guy Ritchie, the director of the quintessential British gangster movie with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, now tries his hand at Arthurian Legend with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. After his career was in a bit of a slump, Ritchie found success going outside his usual comfort zone with the Sherlock Holmes movies, but less so with a 1960s spy movie throwback in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Ritchie does bring his unique style to the medieval setting of King Arthur, but those disparate elements fail to truly meld together into a cohesive whole. That leaves Legend of the Sword quite the resulting mess.

To the credit of Ritchie and Joby Harold, who share a screenwriting credit while Wigram and Dobkin receive story credit here, they do attempt at least to set out on their own version of Arthurian lore without getting bogged down a great deal by what has come before. There aren’t a ton of bold moves here, but the writers at least attempt to develop their own iteration of the mythology for King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Granted, this movie was originally envisioned as a franchise starter for six films, as studios are so woe to invest in these days. Legend of the Sword shows no signs of getting that far, but Ritchie and his crew at least attempt to make their own version of the legend and own it as best as they can. That version is incredibly flawed, but there are elements here that are at least somewhat interesting.

The story begins with the evil mage king, Mordred (Knighton), waging a war to conquer all of England. Atop his army of giant elephants, he leads his battalion in a final push against the country’s last line of defense, Camelot. The city’s king, Uther Pendragon (Bana), despite the urgings of his brother Vortigern (Law) to surrender, opts to infiltrate the battle elephant holding Mordred. Thanks to a magic sword called Excalibur gifted to Uther by a benevolent mage, Merlin, and the Lady of the Lake, Mordred is defeated by Uther and England is saved. However, the hard-fought peace is quickly lost when Vortigern betrays Uther. Uther attempts to flee with his wife, Igraine (Delevingne), and their young son, but they are struck down by a dark, specter-like figure. Uther’s son is spared a similar fate as he’s sent away from Camelot down a river like baby Moses on the Nile. He’s later rescued and adopted by local prostitutes in Londinium. Such a humble and impoverished life forces the young lad, dubbed Arthur, to grow up in the ways of the streets. Now as an adult, Arthur (Hunnam) is essentially the protector of the prostitutes in the brothel who raised him, and he essentially runs all the below-board dealings and operations through Londinium. Unfortunately, Arthur’s activities catch the eye of King Vortigern’s fascist army, the Black Jacks, when Arthur retaliates against Vortigern’s viking guests for getting too rough with Arthur’s adopted mother Lucy. Arthur attempts to flee the city incognito, but he ends up on a ship to Camelot as part of a group to test pulling the sword of Excalibur from a magic stone. You see, Excalibur was lost when Vortigern usurped the kingdom, and now it has reappeared. Vortigern seeks to complete a magic spire in Camelot to gain total control over England. However, dissent against his rule is building among the people. Vortigern’s malevolent Syren advisors have foretold that the “born king” is the only one who can stand against Vortigern and end his reign. So, Vortigern seeks to test all the young men of age in the kingdom by having them pull the sword, since it is tied to the Pendragon bloodline.

Of course, since Arthur is of the Pendragon bloodline, he is able to pull Excalibur from its resting place, exposing him to his biological uncle. Arthur is then whisked away from certain death with help from his father’s former knights Bedivere (Hounsou), Goosefat Bill (Gillen) and a mage (Bergès-Frisbey) trained by Merlin himself. Arthur is reluctant to join a cause he doesn’t fully believe in, but whether he likes it or not, he is the last hope of freeing England from Vortigern’s tyranny.

Legend of the Sword particularly suffers from Ritchie forcing in far too many anachronistic elements into the narrative that fail to come together in a meaningful way. Ritchie’s style went together very well for Sherlock Holmes film. His own personal stamp worked there because it went exceedingly well with that time period of Victorian England. Additionally, Ritchie’s trademark style and editing tricks worked as a perfect way to visualize the manic energy of Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and served in externalizing the Great Detective’s intricate thought process for the audience. Here, Ritchie forces far too many Snatch-esque dialogue sequences and montages where they don’t belong, especially when action is taking place. This happens about four or five times throughout the movie. It takes a very delicate touch to incorporate anachronistic elements into these types of period fantasy dramas or action-adventure movies. Heck, even Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy had them. Unfortunately, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not able to pull this off. Ritchie’s specific idiosyncrasies have the subtlety of a sledge hammer in this picture. Having a couple Snatch-type montages here would’ve been fine. However, by the time the film has utilized this idea for the fourth or fifth time, the gimmick has already worn itself out.

A film about Arthurian legend can only go to that well so many times. Obviously, period dramas or adventure stories are sometimes imbued with a modern sensibility or voice. Ritchie did a much better job of integrating his style throughout his Sherlock Holmes stories over King Arthur, while Sherlock Holmes at least managed to feel accurate to the time period. Here, it seems like Ritchie can’t decide what voice he wants his King Arthur story to have. As a result, the film’s tone comes off as very uneven, and you’re left with a story that doesn’t feel balanced. It seems like Arthur’s journey from street urchin to resistance leader to the savior of England never truly settles or makes the impression it should.

Charlie Hunnam is a good actor. He’s a talented actor. With his chiseled features and physique, he seems to have all the tools. Unfortunately, he never completely owns this role. Hunnam is a British actor, and yet he never seems to fully commit to playing Arthur as a Brit and at times he sounds like he’s using some sort of pseudo-American accent. This is not necessarily all on Hunnam’s shoulders, but in the story’s major turning points, there isn’t enough of a sense of Arthur becoming well and truly changed by the experience. Law plays a good villain, and he plays the villain in Vortigern well. The story almost seems like it would’ve been better served focusing on the rise and fall of Vortigern, especially with his monstrous transformation powers that make him resemble a certain villain from Masters of the Universe, which is admittedly kind of cool.

The biggest letdown in the story is the execution of Bergès-Frisbey’s character. For whatever reason, early reports had her pegged as playing Arthur’s love interest Guinevere. There’s no Guinevere in this story. Bergès-Frisbey is only credited as “The Mage,” and she plays the dual role of being Arthur’s Merlin-like mentor and his pseudo-romantic partner. Unfortunately, this is another execrable Hollywood pseudo-romance that goes nowhere. Since when did it become commonplace for these big event movies to become so sexless? When did romance in action-adventure movies become so taboo? Even the 1999 remake of The Mummy had a far better romance than this. It’s one thing to try and break away from the typical tropes and archetypes of Arthurian Legend by avoiding a romance between Arthur and Guinevere, or a love triangle that also involves Lancelot. This film wants to do things differently, and that’s completely fine. However, the idea of a nameless female Mage being integrated into Arthur’s story as a replacement to Merlin, who exists but is incredibly marginalized in this take, as a potential romance for Arthur is poorly executed. For one thing, the mage character is barely even a character. She’s a paper-thin sorceress who seems to have rather convenient and powerful abilities that she doesn’t always use when they would come in handy, and Arthur tries to flirt with her a few times. That’s about it. Romance in these movies doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It should just be done well. For one reason or another, depicting romance is now a bad thing, which is such a shame.

What’s also disappointing about Legend of the Sword is that there is clear potential here. Arthurian Legend has stood the test of time for a reason. It’s a story that’s been told many times, but that’s because the themes and characters are universal, memorable and iconic. There is nothing wrong with trying to retell the story of King Arthur, and even telling it from the perspective of other characters or doing trying something completely different with the lore. BBC’s Merlin did a great job of this. What’s exciting about Ritchie’s take is that he had a huge budget and clearly did a lot of location shooting. This is definitely a fantasy version of England, but it still has some interesting set-pieces, such as Londinium, which still has touches of past rule by the Roman Empire. That’s where the idiosyncrasies for the story are a bit more effective. Ritchie is playing around with the legend and the actual historical time period. But, he’s not being slavish to past stories of the legend or historical record either. Ritchie wasn’t afraid to use magical, supernatural or fantasy elements for this story either, which is one of the reasons why Disney’s 2004 King Arthur movie with Clive Owen in the lead role was so boring. There are production elements here reminiscent of TV’s dark fantasy series, Game of Thrones, complete with some of the same actors, and some design elements like the giant animal creatures that are reminiscent of 300. But Ritchie’s production favors fully built sets and shooting on location over the more fabricated elements of the 300 movies.

If Ritchie and his writers had a more polished story and vision, they really might have had something here. A roughshod execution and an uneven tone just leave this latest foray into Arthurian Legend rather wanting. There’s a lack of cohesive action and just way too many scenes of characters attempting to mimic the cadence and rhythm of a Ritchie gangster film. What’s clearly meant to be funny turns out to be rather tone-deaf. One can understand why filmmakers are still so keen on Arthurian Legend, even in flawed attempts such as this. Those tales still inform modern-day storytellers to this day. As the Great Dragon said in BBC’s Merlin, a far superior take on the legend, “The story we have been a part of will live long in the minds of men.” And it will continue to do so. However, Ritchie’s own story will not.

The final score: review Not So Good
The 411
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn't all that terrible, but it's far from being the epic, satisfying version of Arthurian Legend that fans of the mythology have always wanted to see. For my money, John Boorman's 1981 film Excalibur remains the best overall cinematic take on Arthurian Legend. Ritchie fails at bringing too many disparate elements together. He tries to leave his own stamp on the King Arthur story, but in the process, he's not able to tell a well executed and satisfying story. There are too many anachronistic montage and dialogue scenes that wear out their welcome. The main actors don't really leave much of an impression outside of Law as the villain. It's hard to believe this endeavor ever began with the vision of becoming a franchise starter in a six-movie series.