The story of King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) has been told in a thousand different ways over the past 500 years. In the grand scheme of things Guy Richie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword falls somewhere near the lower end of the quality spectrum. Ritchie takes a few of the legend’s key ideas, adds a heist plot and a grab bag of fantasy magic and combines it all in a dubious attempt at an update of a classic story.
The movie opens with Arthur’s father, Uther (Eric Bana), defending Camelot from the onslaught of an evil mage who wields mountain sized elephants and a horde of wild men, all of which are handily defeated with the apparent ice magic of the sword Excalibur. Eventually we are introduced to the rest of Arthur’s family, his mother and aunt and Uther’s brother Vortegern (Jude Law). Before long Uther is betrayed by Vortigern and in a scene that will be replayed several times throughout the film we see Arthur’s mother die and Uther fight to give 5 year old Arthur time to escape on a downriver on a boat just outside the castle. He floats away to Londinium presented as a cross between Dickensian London and a 1950’s Roman movie set. Arthur is picked up by some kindly prostitutes and spirited away to live in their brothel. The rest of his history is told in what is the first of many montages, and it shows Arthur develop into something very like a kind hearted crime lord.
From there the movie takes an erratic course towards the inevitable collision between Arthur and Vortigern, with Hunnam’s Arthur wavering back and forth like a sapling in a high breeze as to whether or not he should try to reclaim his throne. Sadly we are not privy to the details of his character growth or thoughts on this as almost all of it takes place in the form of more montages, some of which looked more intriguing than the action scenes that feel as though they make up the majority of the movie’s screen time. There are brawls, assassination attempts, and elaborate schemes that result in MMA style melees with squadrons of faceless bad guys. Often the story had no urgency as few of the characters seem truly invested in the quest to put Arthur on the throne. The final battle fell flat as Hunnam and Law lack the antagonistic chemistry to pull off a grudge match.
One of the few redeeming choices of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was the wide ranging cast. The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a powerful magic user at Arthur’s side and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) are the stand out players in this movie. They are part of the tiny resistance group and look to train Arthur, pushing him, sometimes literally, towards his destiny as King. Berges-Frisbey’s The Mage is both eldritch and brooding while Hounsou gamely performs his role as the would be mentor Bedevere with a rye sense of humor and complete confidence. Charlie Hunnum plays King Arthur as the cocky tough guy and while he is meant to be an antihero he mostly comes off as a jerk. Jude Law chews the scenery as Vortigern, scowling and raging like a toddler who needs a long nap, but for all his flouncing he never winks at the camera and wholeheartedly embraces being the weaselly bad guy. It is apparent early on that the movie is aiming to fill a whole round table by the end as character after character is introduced but so little time is paid to each of these that their names are quickly forgotten.
Legend of the Sword is unequivocally a Guy Ritchie film, with a kaleidoscope of jump cuts, glib speeches, and a stark color palette of gray, blue, and orange. The film is far too self aware and the juxtaposition between the tone of the movie and what is happening on screen is often so jarring it becomes surreal. The special effects are uneven, with some scenes obviously given the time and attention they needed, whereas others got the short end of the magic sword. It is not helped by Ritchies penchant to get up close and personal with fight scenes. The sword fights, of which there are many, feel crammed onto the screen and it was difficult to make out what was happening when there were more than two people. Guy Ritchie’s directorial quirks work well in some films, but in King Arthur they feel overplayed and stale.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword often felt like two movies blended together to create an unappetizing, diet shake. Some characters inhabit the world of an epic fantasy tale with giant magical creatures, esoteric magic and honor to be won. The rest wander through a jaunty story of cunning hucksters and slick medieval con men. Arthur goes back and forth between the two worlds and is never able to stick with one character arc and thus misses the chance to grow and develop into a better man. The heart of the King Arthur legend is honor and chivalry and the movie never seems interested in exploring those ideas, instead settling for cheap laughs and flashy action scenes.