Film Review – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Guy Ritchie is a filmmaker of excess. Throughout his career, you can see film after film stock full of slick production and frenetic energy. That trend is amplified to the tenth degree in his latest, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). Yes, the writer/director who made a name for himself in the crime genre has put his unique spin on the legend of King Arthur, the sword Excalibur, and the Knights of the Round Table. One look at this and we can automatically see the familiar Guy Ritchie touches. In a way, this is a callback to his earlier work – but instead of guns and money, we have swords, magic, and monsters.
Yes, you heard that right. For those that are looking for a King Arthur story in the traditional sense, you are not going to get that here. Ritchie, who directs and cowrote the screenplay with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, tosses out much of the customary beats of this legend. In fact, the famous moment when Arthur pulls Excalibur out of a stone is somewhat of an afterthought. Instead, Ritchie ramps up the speed and spectacle to trace a reluctant hero’s journey amidst a whirlwind of sorcery, mystical creatures, and large scale battles.
You know what you’re getting into when the opening scene is a battle featuring giant sized elephants attacking a barricaded castle. Rather than telling a serious tale, Ritchie opts to go full gonzo, driving the plot to more outrageous levels the further we move along. His Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, knee-deep in his Sons of Anarchy persona) is not just raised an orphan but as the head of a low level criminal organization. We whip past his youth like a music video montage, showing us how he was brought up by the streets and sheltered in a brothel, Daniel Pemberton’s pounding score guiding us all the way through. He quickly learns the ways of the world and how to survive. But little does Arthur realize that he is the son of the rightful king (Eric Bana), whose throne was stolen by his evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) through black magic. It’s only until Arthur pulls Excalibur out of stone does he realize who is, and becomes the central focus of Vortigern’s wrath.
I dearly hope James Herbert – who edited – was paid handsomely for his work. He was tasked to jump through different times and perspectives on multiple occasions. This is something that we often see in a Guy Ritchie picture, but this is by far the most extreme version of that style. We revisit scenes repeatedly, each time with a new view or an added detail that changes the dynamic. Scenes are cut in the middle of a sentence, and we shift from reality to dream sequences almost arbitrarily. When Arthur and his gang of thieves are questioned by authorities over an encounter they had with vikings, the dialogue edited with the live action reenactments have a breathless pace. And yet, everything has a coherence to it, there isn’t a moment where things get too jumbled or confusing.
The character development – whatever little there is – revolves around Arthur’s reluctance to accept his responsibility once his lineage is discovered. Egged on by his friends and loyal followers (Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen, amongst them) and a mysterious mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) Arthur gets torn between his life as a criminal and his royal duty to lead the masses. Hunnam, still trying to make a transition from television to the big screen, plays Arthur fairly straight, acting as though he has a plan up his sleeve even when he doesn’t. The writing and direction turns Arthur into a physical presence, and Hunnam fills the character appropriately.
Jude Law had the opportunity to swing for the fences as the villain. The role called for a flamboyant, over the top performance. The late Alan Rickman’s turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) is exactly the kind of performance this character was calling for. Vortigern is placed in colorful outfits, commits dastardly acts on those who oppose him, and even gains his power from a magical octopus monster (think a slimier version of Ursula from The Little Mermaid) who lives underneath his castle. But alas, Law plays Vortigern as a solemn, somber bad guy. In a movie that is completely unrestrained, Law sadly turns in a restrained performance.
But let’s not fool ourselves – the main attraction is Guy Ritchie, who flexes his cinematic muscles in nearly every frame. There’s barely a moment of respite, as he throws everything but the kitchen sink into the narrative. He turns Excalibur into a lightsaber of mass destruction, endowing Arthur with unlimited power. As the action builds up, reality makes way for CGI that is obviously not aiming for any kind of realistic rendering. Creatures can be as small as a person’s hand to the size of a mountain. I couldn’t help but laugh watching a giant snake wreck havoc on an unsuspecting fortress. And the final confrontation is straight out of a video game, with the camera flying passed the subjects as though it’s a piece of debris caught in a tornado.
Look, I’m not going to tell you that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a great picture. In fact, I’m sure many people are going to detest it. It’s overly flashy, but by God is it entertaining. Ritchie pummels us with a “I don’t give a damn” attitude that doesn’t stop until the credits roll. Sometimes, that’s all you really need.