A film review by Craig J. Koban May 20, 2017



2017, PG-13, 126 mins.


Charlie Hunnam as Arthur  /  Jude Law as Vortigern  /   Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as Mage  Djimon Hounsou as Sir Bedivere  /  Aidan Gillen as Goosefat Bill Wilson  /  Eric Bana as King Uther Pendragon  /  Annabelle Wallis as Maid Maggie  /  Tom Wu as George  /  David Beckham as Blackleg leader

Directed by Guy Ritchie  /  Written by Joby Harold, Ritchie, and Lionel Wigram


KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is the seemingly umpteenth retelling of the classic Arthurian legend, only this time heavily amping up on the pure fantastical elements.  

Directed with enthusiasm - perhaps a bit too much for his own good...more on that later - by Guy Ritchie (whom previously retooled another iconic property in SHERLOCK HOLMES), this new tale of Camelot boasts an exceedingly strong cast, a massive budget, some striking visuals, and a berserker rage energy that's sometimes infectious.  Sadly, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD fails to leave a lasting impression, mostly because it's an exceedingly obtrusive style over substance affair without much thoughtful examination of its "legend" in question.  It plays like 300 cross morphed with THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but infinitely more ponderous and messy. 

Ritchie has made some films that I've greatly admired (LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH) as well as some terribly underrated recent gems (like the surprisingly decent THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), and through and through he imparts his unique stylistic brand to the proceedings (a kinetic pacing, rapid fire editing, rollicking soundtracks, and a cheeky irreverence).  His esoteric fingerprints can be readily felt all the way through KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, which certainly gives the film a crackerjack pacing and sense of aesthetic segregation from the previous cinematic incarnations of this subject matter.  The problem with this version is not in the looks department, but rather what lurks beneath its near $200 million budgeted sheen: It fails to make its titular character a compelling on screen protagonist.  Amidst all of this film's sorcery, monsters, and swashbuckling dynamism is a pretty dull origin narrative. 



The film opens in fairly spectacular fashion, which, to be fair, does pack a reasonably enveloping wallop.  The yet to be king Arthur is a young lad that witnesses the murder of his father, King Uther (Eric Bana), slain by his mad power hungry uncle Vortigern (a wonderfully cast against type Jude Law).  As a result of this trauma - and Vortigern anointing himself king in his brother's place - Arthur goes into hiding and is raised by, yes, prostitutes (but heart-of-gold prostitutes) on the streets of London.  Flashforward several years and we are re-introduced to the adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), who looks mightily healthy for a person that grew up without a place of residence and a ready food supply (the "street bum" heroes of Ritchie's ancient London have bodies like Chippendale dancers, perfect teeth, exceedingly well coiffed hair, and leather pants and coats that don't really hint at a life of abject poverty).   

The exceedingly hunky Arthur is called upon to see whether or not he can indeed pull his daddy's mystical sword "Excalibur" out of a stone (which is essentially a scheme perpetrated by Vortigern to lure his nephew put of hiding).  Predictably, Arthur succeeds where all other brothel and non-brothel raised men have failed and takes to Excalibur as Thor does to Mjolnir, but he's immediately captured by the nefarious king and scheduled for swift execution.  Thankfully, Arthur has multiple allies that thwart Vortigern's plans, aided by a mysterious mage (Astrid Berges-Frisby), Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), and Goosefat Bill (GAME OF THRONES Aidan Gillen, forever destined to be typecast playing in fantasies going forward).  Arthur escapes what was certain death and plots his revenge against the man that killed his father, but launching such a plan - and wielding the monumentally powerful Excalibur - will require ample effort. 

I appreciated that KING ARTHUR: THE LEGEND OF THE SWORD dares to be audaciously different and sticks to its creative impulses to re-imagine Arthur and his future Knights of the Round Table as a full on fantasy that rarely hides behind such imperatives.  This take is anything but slow moving and grimly downbeat, seeing as Ritchie does what he can to unleash every tool and trick in his filmmaking arsenal craft a Arthurian film that doesn't feel like its lazily pilfering from past movie examples.  There are a few wonderfully realized sequences sprinkled throughout the film, like the introductory one of the story that features a siege on King Uther's castle, replete with war ravaging elephants the size of AT-ATs from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  There's a virtuoso montage later on that showcases the young Arthur toughening up on the streets of London and becoming a hardened man in the process.  Ritchie brings a swift aura of ringmaster confidence in these moments that's hard to ignore. 

Paradoxically, Ritchie may be his own worst enemy here, seeing as the film is frequently too aggressively showy in laying on the director's quirky excesses.  There's no doubt that he keeps the plot racing along at a swift pace throughout, but more often than not KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD seems reticent to slow itself down, take a breather, and focus on character dynamics.  Heroes and villains here seem to drown in this film's pixelized excesses: the CGI is fairly impressive at times, but the overabundance of its feels suffocating and never really inspires out-of-body sensations of legitimate awe and wonder in viewers.  For example, just look at the climatic battle between Arthur and Vortigern, which is so distractingly over-the-top in its computer generated fakery that it all but erodes any semblance of dramatic impact such a moment between uncle and nephew could have had.  Considering the massive build-up to this confrontation, I felt shockingly little for Arthur's attempts to vanquish his enemy. 

Then there's Arthur himself, whose physically inhabited well Charlie Haunam; he gives the character a rugged gallantry that is most certainly required.  Unfortunately, this Arthur isn't particularly likeable and has an anachronistically snarky demeanor that's frankly off-putting at times (and I'm not entirely sure that knights of ancient London wore modern bomber leather coats, sported salon quality buzz cuts, and threw everyday colloquial slang around like they just walked off of a movie set in 2017).  Hunnam is done no favors by his supporting cast, seeing as his motley crew of sidekicks are barely fleshed out entities.  And for as much joy as I derived watching Jude Law sink his teeth into playing a back stabbing baddie here, his Vortigern is all posturing menace.  We never really learn what makes this villain tick, which has the negative consequence of squandering Law's talents in what should have been a juicy role. 

There's so much cool stuff to drink in and look at in KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD - magic unleashing action, giant swamp rats, snakes, and elephants, and a couple of extremely nifty sequences of Arthur unleashing Excalibur in all of its time slowing, ass kick fury.  Ritchie, to his credit, gives this film a vivacious pulse, but there's very little emotional heart to it.  KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is a fantasy of some strange contradictions: it's frenetically paced and displays legitimate filmmaking polish, but it also fails to put any faith its characters and their relationships with one another, which makes the whole film an empty-minded slog to sit through.  I'm surprised by how Hollywood has failed to make a decent King Arthur movie over the last several years with A-list directors: 2004's KING ARTHUR from Antoine Fuqua was a creative failure, and now Ritchie's iteration...not as awful, but certainly not legendary as promised in its title. 

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