In the land of Hollywood, the franchise is the Holy Grail. How often haven’t we heard filmmakers declaring a movie to be the start of a trilogy before the first entry has even been released, much less a success? Guy Ritchie must realize this quest as the fool’s errand it is though. That’s the only explanation I can think of as to why he’s instead decided to rather just make an entire trilogy in one movie and get it over and done with.
If that statement leaves you confused, then get used to that feeling as Ritchie’s rousing revisionist take on the King Arthur myth takes such a frantic scripting approach that it will often leave you wondering if you’ve just dozed off and missed a crucial part of the story. And don’t be fooled, this could be a great story – the paradox is just that there’s too much of it, and so we don’t get to see enough to get engaged with most of it.
Ritchie and his co-writing team of Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold end up stumbling over themselves as they fight the film’s two-hour running time, flitting from scene to scene in scattershot fashion. Ominous lines are dropped and forgotten, figures we’ve barely met referenced with portent. There’s one sequence involving a quest to the “Darklands” which feels like it could be a film on its own due to its supposedly weighty ramifications, but here it’s played out in a frantic three-minute montage. I’m a firm believer that audiences don’t need to be spoon fed bowls of lumpy exposition, but you shouldn’t just throw a pile of crumbs in their face either.
Why this misstep irks so much though is that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword gets so much else right! Ritchie’s spin on the Arthurian legend is a brash take that plays to all his slick filmmaking strengths while at the same time spinning out grandiose sword and sorcery ideas. It’s a tale that begins when King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), having defeated the dark mage Mordred with the magical might of the sword Excalibur, is betrayed by his jealous brother Vortigern (Jude Law). While Uther and his wife are slain, they give their lives so that their young son Arthur can escape and the sword mysteriously kept out of Vortigern’s grasp.
In a rock ‘n rolling montage blitz we see the life of Arthur play out as he is taken in by the ladies of a brothel, and unaware of his heritage grows up rough on the streets, building a name for himself as somebody with an unshakable drive and ambition who you just don’t cross. This is no stodgy pauper’s tale. This Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a smooth-talking streetwise gang leader, as skilled with his fists as he is in turning a coin and not averse to some criminality to do it. He is however loyal to a fault when it comes to protecting those around him.
It’s that protective streak that sees him gain the attention of King Vortigern who has since solidified and expanded his grip on the land with dark magic and an oppressive military presence. Arthur’s appearance is fortuitous though as a certain sword has just mysteriously reappeared buried in a rock, right as the resistance fighting against Vortigern have started spreading the tale of the “Born King” who will come to save them.
Soon Arthur is lined up by Vortigern’s lackeys to take his turn on giving the sword a tug alongside all other young men who fit the description of Uther’s heir, and we all know how that story turns out. Well, with some changes. This Excalibur does more than just declare the prophesied king, it also grants its rightful bearer the immense physical power capable of felling armies – if the man wielding the sword can actually learn to control its power as well as himself.
All of this sets the scene for some stylishly filmed swashbuckling and monster slaying, ranging from scrappy running fights through the streets of Londinium to epic Frank Frazetta battle paintings come to life (complete with striking 3D visuals). And Hunnam is more than up to the physical task. What is surprising though, is just how amazingly he does in those moments when he’s not sword-in-hand. Showing an off-the-cuff charm and upbeat quippiness unlike anything I’ve seen the young actor possess before, his Arthur is effortlessly likable and fun in his roughness.
A lot of that credit has to also go to Ritchie though, who pens some of the most endlessly quotable banter around. And when the filmmaker engages vintage Maximum Ritchie Mode in several occasions – all snappy edits, punchy dialogue, and larger than life characters – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is utterly enjoyable. With an enervating, headbanging score by Daniel Pemberton added to the mix, the movie feels like a furious success in these moments.
But Hunnam’s supporting cast suffers heavily from characters just showing up and then disappearing again. Neil Maskell, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Aiden Gillen are all very fun and likable, and Djimon Honsou and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey do solid jobs while filling out the more serious end of the spectrum, but they’re all essentially cyphers. Walking tropes with funny names like Goosefat Bill and Backlack. Law does at least turn his role of Vortigern into a feast, showing off some depth and complexity in the role.
But it’s a role, like so many other elements in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, that the haphazard scripting and frustrating narrative structure, unfortunately just doesn’t have enough time for. Piecing together the film’s jumpy narrative is a quest all on its own. Throw in a CG-overload finale that turns a fantasy romp into a video game cutscene, and you have a feisty film, dripping in style and brash Brit rock flair, but which also frustrates intensely.
Last Updated: May 11, 2017