All images courtesy of Warner Bros.
When Hollywood executives approached Guy Ritchie to direct KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, they said, “Make it like that Sherlock Holmes movie you did but with knights and stuff!” — at least that’s how I imagine how the deal went down. The director who brought us stylized across-the-pond greatness like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels attempts to inject the same tough-as-nails swagger to Camelot lore but ends up making a tangled Arthurian mess.
If you’ve watched Disney’s Sword in the Stone, you should have a gist of King Arthur’s story. There’s a sword in a stone with an inscription stating that whoever pulls it out successfully is the rightful King of England. Wart, a young orphaned squire, pulls the sword from said stone, becomes king, the end. More happens, but you get the gist.
In King Arthur, there is no Wart, only the man who would be King, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam). Like Disney’s interpretation, he is an Orphan, but it’s a little darker than the animated tale. As a young boy, he witnesses the violent murder of his father the King Uther (Eric Bana) and mother Igraine (Poppy Delevingne) by the hands of a monstrous, dark entity. His shady uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) takes the throne while he ends up being raised at a brothel while hustling on the street to survive. One day, he, like every other man in his hood, is forced to make his attempt to pull he legendary sword from the stone. To his and David Beckham’s (yep, he makes a cameo) he successfully pulls the sword and technically reclaims his birthright as king — but his Uncle ain’t having it. Plus, Arthur doesn’t know if he is ready for all the responsibility either. So this brings a whole host of problems for everyone involved. Arthur solicits his help from his posse of soon-to-be Knights of the Roundtable as well as a super-cool Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) who can control the animal kingdom with her morphing eyes. All the elements for an adventurous fantasy are in place, but you’ll wish that the sword stayed in that stone to avoid movies like this.
Directed by Ritchie from a script he wrote with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is as if someone just spilled a legendary story on to the table. From the very beginning, the movie has an awkward rhythm and never manages to find the beat. It’s always a joy to be thrown into Ritchie’s cinematic world of quick cuts and rapid-fire dialogue, but here it is labored and forced. It’s not as effortless as it is in his previous films and comes off as gimmicky and pandering. What is supposed to showcase Ritchie’s aesthetic ends up screwing with the overall tone of the movie.
There’s a lack of clarity of what this movie wants to be. Is it an action? A fantasy of familial dysfunction? A hero’s origin story? A medieval Ocean’s 11? One could argue that it’s all of the above, but if it is, it did a poor job of balancing its identity. There seems to be an assumption that since Ritchie was able to put this sort of twist on Sherlock Holmes that he could do the same with another literary classic — but that assumption is so wrong. So, so wrong.
I would have liked to see this go in the direction of Willow, full-out fantasy with knights, wizards, spells, weird medieval creatures, and all of that hoopla. All the while, it would be grounded in the age-old tale about a young man finding out who he is and coming to term with his place in the world. Although there are these storytelling elements in King Arthur, it barely scratched the surface. There was a severe shortage of fantastical wonder and narrative intrigue that goes along with Arthurian lore. Instead of being more like a fun-filled adventure like Willow, the movie definitely wanted to sit at the same table as Game of Thrones — but it doesn’t strike the same balance of dramatic epicness and fantasy as the HBO hit. It’s a watered-down Westeros at best.
Hunnam as the titular Arthur further proves that the Sons of Anarchy alum has yet to find his place in Hollywood. His talent hasn’t been fully realized and his acting career has become a game of trial and error. During Sons, he was surrounded by a phenomenal ensemble that elevated his performance for seven seasons. He left little impression in the Guillermo del Toro horror Crimson Peak (which would explain why I forgot he was in it) while the subject matter was far more interesting than his performance in his latest movie The Lost City of Z. If anything, seeing him fight big robots in Pacific Rim has been the highlight of his movie career. Like Henry Cavill, Hunnam’s screen presence outweighs his ability to act. Hollywood can’t quite figure out what to do with him so they’re just throwing him around until they do.
Along with a cast of notable actors like the aforementioned Bana as well as Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, and Annabelle Wallis, Hunnam does his best to move this wooden story forward despite his shortcomings. If anything, watching Law play the malicious power hungry uncle was enjoyable because who doesn’t like a villain like him? The frequent Ritchie collaborator nibbles on the scenery with grace and delicious arrogance. He, along with Berges-Frisbey’s animal-controlling Mage make up the Arthurian fantasy world that I wanted to see in this movie.
King Arthur needs to sharpen it sword more if it wants to be a formidable foundation of a “Knights of the Roundtable Cinematic Universe” — and based on the ending of the movie, there seems to be a plan mapped out for that. Ritchie’s movie is weak jumping off point that lacks focus, spirit, and the fun that the Arthurian story could have. There hasn’t been a noteworthy movie about King Arthur since 1981’s Excalibur and as much as Legend of the Sword wanted to change all of that, it didn’t.
Running time: 126 minutes
Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
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Dino-Ray Ramos | Film Critic