KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD
By Nathan Evans
‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ is the latest attempt from Warner Bros. studios to start a new franchise based around the classic folklore surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The film is helmed by Guy Ritchie, a director known more for his early British gangster flicks ‘Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Snatch’ than anything else. Though he dealt with some fantastical elements in his two previous ‘Sherlock Holmes’ films (the first of which being one of the most watchable adventure films of the past ten years), Ritchie is truly an odd choice to helm a fantasy film of this scale. While the director succeeds more with ‘King Arthur’ than he doesn’t, his usual intriguing style still falls flat more often than it should, leaving us with an entertaining, yet deeply flawed action picture.
‘Sons of Anarchy’s’ Charlie Hunnam stars as the titular character. After witnessing the betrayal of his king father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), at the hands of his uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law), at an early age, Arthur escapes his uncle’s treachery and is taken in by a kindly group of working women at a brothel. With no memory of his previous life, Arthur grows up to become a gangster with a heart of gold; standing up for the women that raised him while also lining his pockets with petty criminal pursuits.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, Arthur’s father’s magical sword, Excalibur, reveals itself, lodged deep within a pillar of stone. Vortigern, aware that only someone of the Pendragon blood line could lift the sword from the stone, begins rounding up the citizens of his kingdom and forcing them to attempt to free the sword. At great cost, Arthur manages to wrest the sword from its resting place, revealing himself to his uncle and discovering his royal lineage. It’s not long before Vortigern attempts to kill him, but Arthur manages to escape with the aide of a mysterious sorceress, a disciple of Merlin himself, a woman known only as The Mage; portrayed by Spanish actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey. From there Arthur’s set on a crash course by The Mage and her cohorts to learn how to wield the sword, so he can bring his evil uncle’s unjust rule to an end.
As early as the film’s prologue I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps Guy Ritchie had bitten off more than he could chew. Immediately we’re confronted by some hard fantasy, and while the CGI that realizes it is impressive for the most part, Ritchie’s utilization of it feels messy. There’s not much of a sense of space or how objects relate to one another, lending to the feeling that you’re watching animation rather than creating the illusion of realism. Ritchie’s frenetic editing style doesn’t help matters; only serving to disorient the audience further.
Ritchie’s signature style undermines the film’s narrative as well. Usually the director is able to utilize non-linear storytelling to enhance the tale he’s trying to tell— here it just confuses things. There are several moments throughout the film where Ritchie withholds information for no conceivable reason only to attempt to surprise us with it later. In the past he’s been savvy enough to clue the audience in on what he was doing, but here his intentions are impenetrable. I often found myself mistaking a scene’s editing flourish for an editing mistake. When the film would then bring critical information back around later, I’d just find myself underwhelmed because I didn’t realize that there was supposed to be more to the initial scene in the first place. One gets the impression that Ritchie did this to spice up a script that may have felt too flat or generic otherwise. Unfortunately his efforts don’t do much to alleviate those issues anyway. Fortunately, he does eventually calm down, and by the time we get into the meat of the film we can follow along well enough to enjoy what’s happening.
The film’s stellar cast contributes to that enjoyment a great deal. ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ features a plethora of new and familiar international actors. Djimon Honsou and ‘Game of Thrones’’ Aiden Gillan are great in their limited supporting roles, but the new-to-me Neil Maskell makes even more of an impression as Arthur’s longtime friend Back Lack who provides the film with it’s only real emotional subplot. Berges-Frisbey is interesting and appropriately mysterious as The Mage, and Jude Law is incredibly slimy as Vortigern, but, like the rest of the supporting cast, they aren’t fleshed out as well as they should be.
Arthur, luckily, is fully realized. As is always the case with films that set out to establish a franchise, there’s the danger that even the main protagonist could be sacrificed for the sake of world building, but Arthur is the one character that comes out unscathed. This is my first significant experience with Hunnam as a leading man, and I’m happy to say that I hope it won’t be the last. Despite my initial impressions from snippets of other media, Hunnam plays a convincing roguish, yet likable tough guy. His performance is nothing less than magnetic and his efforts go a long way in keeping the audience engaged.
Ritchie doesn’t let Hunnam down completely either. Despite the confusing narrative, the director still manages to stage some fun action sequences. It’s in these bits where Arthur finally manages to wield Excalibur that Ritchie’s frenetic sensibilities become an asset. Ritchie also delivers a very cool montage near the beginning of the film that follows Arthur’s life as he comes of age both in the brothel and on the street.
Flaws and all, ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ is a fun, entertaining film. Like a lot of franchise starters, the movie attempts to do more than it should, losing sight of it’s main goal of crafting a film that stands on it’s own. While I outlined the significant beats earlier in the review, there’s a lot at play within the film that I didn’t touch on because ultimately it doesn’t end up coming to fruition. The lore surrounding the legend of King Arthur is dense, and the film attempts to cram too much of it into only two hours (yet another aspect that contributes to the film’s sense of confusion). Despite the error, the film is fun and charming enough that it’s worth it for audiences to look past its warts.
In the end, even at it’s worst, the film is nowhere near as egregious in its attempts to build a universe as some of its lesser comic book film contemporaries. I even enjoyed it enough that I wouldn’t mind it if a sequel actuallly got made. Though, if the film’s box office is anything to go by, I highly doubt that’ll happen.
RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5
For more reviews and updates on all things Nerd on Film follow me on Twitter (@nerdonfilm) and like the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nerdonfilm/