June 2024

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

DIRECTOR: Guy Ritchie

CAST: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Aidan Gillen, Annabelle Wallis, Eric Bana


As he previously did with Sherlock Holmes, Guy Ritchie has now set his sights on putting his distinctive spin on the legend of King Arthur.  More than most directors, Ritchie’s films are permeated with his own sensibilities and heavily stylized, which has its share of fans as well as its share of those whom it rubs the wrong way, and just as some Sherlock Holmes were less-than-impressed with what he did with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, many adherents of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table will not be impressed with this “retelling”.  Legend of the Sword piles on a healthy helping of Ritchie’s stylized action, but an epic fantasy adventure, this is not.

We start with the dark mage Mordred, commanding forces of darkness in a conquest of Britain and leading an assault on the last defiant stronghold, Camelot.  King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) manages to vanquish the enemy at the gates, but that doesn’t save him from one within his walls, as his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) orchestrates a bloody coup that leaves Uther and his wife dead but their baby son Arthur set adrift down the river to London, where he grows up in a brothel raised by prostitutes and becomes a streetfighting gang leader.  One day, the grown Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is snatched up like all other men his age, to be taken to the royal castle and forced to try his hand at pulling his father’s sword Excalibur from the stone where it is embedded, a test by King Vortigern to find the missing heir that could threaten his throne.  When Arthur pulls sword from stone—as much to his bewilderment as anyone’s—he is scheduled for a very public execution, but narrowly escapes the executioner’s axe with the timely intervention of a mysterious nameless Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who rescues him and spirits him away to join a band of rebels determined to overthrow Vortigern’s rule.

Traditional elements from the King Arthur legend, such as Uther Pendragon, Mordred, Vortigern, Sir Bedivere, Excalibur, and the Lady of the Lake are present, but they’re all underdeveloped.  Merlin appears only fleetingly.  Lancelot, Galahad, and many other of Arthur’s traditional Knights are notably MIA.  Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s mysterious Mage With No Name is apparently meant to be Guinevere, but you’d only know that from behind-the-scenes supplementary material, as she is never called by name onscreen.  Ritchie’s frenetic, zip zap pace and restless camera work at times results in a fragmented feel and uneven pace; the opening, which zips through Vortigern’s coup, the death of Uther, and Arthur’s childhood at a rapid-fire clip, is fragmented and hard to follow.  At times, Ritchie also tries to throw in his quirky sense of humor which doesn’t feel like it meshes well with this material, including a convoluted interrogation scene between Arthur and a suspicious military commander played by Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones’ Roose Bolton) that feels like it belongs more in Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.  Unsurprisingly given Ritchie’s sensibilities, his version of Arthur, despite the period surroundings, is modernized into a wisecracking gang leader before going into pseudo superhero mode (the way Charlie Hunnam plays Arthur isn’t completely dissimilar to his “firm” leader in Green Street Hooligans, and Excalibur has a bit of a “Thor’s hammer” vibe).  The narrative is half-baked and rushed; a side-quest involving Arthur facing all sorts of animals is skimmed through to the point of borderline incoherence.  The Mage’s powers also come across like a deus ex machina, like a goofy moment when Arthur is rescued by a giant CGI snake.  This and other elements like the climax with Arthur battling a giant CGI monster (as opposed to the in-the-flesh Jude Law) contribute to making Legend of the Sword a half-baked mix of saucy wit and portentous sorcery that tries to have it both ways and doesn’t really fully succeed in any direction.

There’s not much to say about the acting.  Charlie Hunnam, who continues to land lead roles in big-budget projects like this despite a less-than-sterling track record, swaggers broodingly through a glum action hero that gives him little to do besides utter a few dry one-liners and swing a sword around.  Last year’s The Lost City of Z required Hunnam to do a little actual acting, but there’s not much asked of him here, nor does he bring much to the part on his own.  On the other hand, Jude Law (reunited with Ritchie from Sherlock Holmes but far removed from Dr. Watson) slithers nicely into the role of the evil king and shows that he’s fully capable of playing a slimy villain, though even he is finally defeated by going Super Saiyan and being replaced with a giant CGI monster version of himself for the climactic one-on-one, which leaves things rather anti-climactic.  Everyone else—Djimon Hounsou in a “faithful sidekick” role not dissimilar to the one he played in Gladiator only with even less development, Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s Mage, onhand to deliver exposition, Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger) as a member of the rebel band, and Annabelle Wallis as Vortigern’s maid and a spy for the rebels—is underdeveloped to the point of making no impression.

Like a lot of other movies recently, Legend of the Sword might be entertaining enough to be diverting in the moment, but is disposable and forgettable and leaves one with a sense of wasted time.  Among various iterations of the King Arthur legend, this less-than-epic romp is among the lesser tellings.

* * 1/2