Enjoyable performances from Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law are lost amidst a plot designed to showcase action
Film score: 6/10
I’m sure the executives at Warner Bros. were confident their Guy Ritchie-directed King Arthur adaptation would be a huge hit. Not to mention the five planned sequels. With some tweaks to the typical Arthurian legend, the right actors, and that unique Ritchie treatment of the film, it should have been the beginning of a profitable franchise devoid of superheroes with years of runway ahead.
It could have been.
It isn’t a bad film—certainly not as bad as the box office or many other critics might suggest—but King Arthur: Legend of the Sword focuses too much on pyrotechnics and not enough on substance. Even though the film has many bright spots, the filmmakers drown everything with more action, more plot, more noise. However fun it all might be, the movie keeps shouting until it becomes too difficult to pick apart the good from the bad.
Thankfully the casting of Charlie Hunnam as the newest iteration of Arthur was a check in the pros column. In this version of the story his character was orphaned at a young age and grew up without knowing he was son to King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who had been murdered by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Despite being raised in a brothel in the city of Londinium (a pleasant nod to Roman occupation and historical accuracy), Arthur knew he could aspire to more. Hunnam is regal from the moment he steps on screen, in a gentleman rogue sort of way. He’s charismatic through confidence, both as an actor and a character. I’ve never witnessed Hunnam on screen before this, but he treats the role the same way Arthur treats the other characters: knowing that not everyone knows or likes him and that’s okay, because at the end of the day they’ll still probably end up the best of friends. As Arthur says, “Why have enemies when you can have friends?”
Jude Law as Vortigern is the only true enemy Arthur has, and he plays the role of villain admirably. Law cleverly avoids melodramatic posturing in favor of quiet menace and suggested power. He is certain he will be able to continue growing his power, but just to be safe he rounds up all men of a proper age to try their luck at pulling sword from stone. Enter Arthur, the born king, and the beginning of a struggle for the throne. Unfortunately, as Arthur learns to wield the sword (which is straight O.P.) the audience never gets to see Vortigern’s “growing” power. The only instance of Vortigern actually wielding magic is when he holds flickering flames in his hand. He uses magic other times in the film, but at the risk of spoilers, suffice to say the audience never actually sees him using it.
It’s a disappointing trend throughout the film. Every instance of magic is either minimal or extraordinary. There’s no in between. The opening sequence features a retinue of mages riding the backs of elephants 100 feet tall and wielding what basically amounts to a disintegration ray against the battlements of Camelot. The climatic displays of magic quickly lose their novelty and result in sequences oddly reminiscent of video game cut scenes, ultimately adding to more of that noise. Their saving grace is that they really only happen at the beginning and end of the film, leaving the entire middle with room for more enticing fare.
Legend of the Sword is at its best when the characters are the focus. Whether it’s Arthur’s back alley mates or the ragtag team of rebels led by Uther’s former advisors, they provide an everyman face to the epic battle raging around them. They also provide plenty of proverbial storytelling meat for Guy Ritchie to chop up in his traditional quick-cut style. There are truly elegant moments of Ritchie’s style, including a montage of Arthur’s early life, a story Arthur relates to a Londinium guard, and a hypothetical situation between Arthur and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) which is played out for the audience’s pleasure.
Besides Hounsou (The Legend of Tarzan, Guardians of the Galaxy), the acting roster holds other notable names, including Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) as a rather self-serving Goosefat Bill and Annabelle Wallis (The Tudors, upcoming The Mummy) as Maggie. David Beckham has a few lines in his acting debut, and Katie McGrath makes an appearance (and unintentional Arthurian adaptation continuity, as she’d previously starred in the BBC series Merlin). If only Ritchie and his team had spent more time on them instead of relegating their names to obscurity in favor of an incredibly drawn out process to make Arthur come to terms with his past—assisted by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as the Mage—so that he can use Excalibur and ramp up the epic action and noise again.
What Ritchie and his team fail to recognize is that just like Arthur is not defined by the circumstances of his childhood, neither does Excalibur define him as a king. The legend of the sword paves the way for the true king, but Arthur—and the men and women who fight by his side—are the true heroes. Ignore them and their story and it doesn’t matter how seamless the editing, pounding the music, or dazzling the displays. The people won’t follow.