KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is not your father’s King Arthur. Nor is it your John Boorman’s King Arthur, your Broadway’s King Arthur, your Disney’s King Arthur, your Jerry Zucker’s King Arthur or your Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. It’s not even your 300‘s King Arthur, even though it opens with two armored, King Kong sized war elephants laying siege to Camelot. One of them swings a wrecking ball from his trunk, the other has a pyramid on his back. It spews flames like some kind of crude engine and contains the evil Mage King Mordred (Rob Knighton). That is until King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana in another Oh cool, it’s Eric Bana / Oh wait, he’s only gonna be in the beginning part, isn’t he? role) jumps aboard and introduces the inside of the sorcerer’s neck to Excalibur.
Yeah, there’s more crazy fantasy where that came from, or at least a couple more giant versions of animals (snake, bat), but mostly this stays true to the description Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur. Like he did with Sherlock Holmes, he recasts Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS) as a streetwise brawler. He was sent away (like Superman) but in a boat (like Willow) to avoid being killed by his evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law, eXistenZ), but also he witnesses his father being murdered (like Batman) and then grew up in a brothel (like Richard Pryor). In adulthood, we first meet him having just avenged some vikings who (at the very least) beat up one of the ladies. I’d like to think he’s just a loyal family member and not their pimp.
Anyway, he’s been hustling since childhood, and some of the future knights of the Round Table are currently his “lads,” with nicknames like Wet Stick and Back Lack. Also he learned to fight from Kung Fu George (Tom Wu, OUT FOR A KILL, BELLY OF THE BEAST, THE TOURNAMENT), so there’s a combination aging/training montage.
Many will find LEGEND OF THE SWORD unbearably obnoxious for the exact reasons I found it fresh. Ritchie doesn’t see any reason not to Ritchie it up with hyperactive montages and time jumps, fast, slangy dialogue and storytelling gimmicks like skipping forward to the elite knights turning their noses up to Arthur while he’s still predicting that that’s what they’ll do when he goes to them. Ritchie’s Arthur also follows a very current ideal of burly male style: the shaved on the sides, pomaded on the top hair with the lumberjack beard, a wool lined jacket that Ryan Gosling might wear – surprisingly no tattoos or twirly mustaches though.
The brothel gets raided by the Blacklegs – cops who wear cool metal masks – because it turns out the vikings were protected by the king. Diplomatic immunity! He makes a run for it (jumping across roof tops but sadly not quite parkour) but gets stopped and carded (they check for a brand on his wrist) and shipped off on a boatload of men who have to try to pull the sword out of the stone.
He’s kind of an asshole and cuts in line, which at first I thought was to save everybody some time by getting it over with, but it turns out he didn’t know he was gonna be able to pull it out and spray a bunch of magic everywhere.
Anyway Arthur and the lads team up with some rebels including the elite archer Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen, 12 ROUNDS, BLITZ), his dad’s friend Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou, ELEPHANT WHITE) and a Beast Master lady credited as “The Mage” (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES) who I guess is Merlin’s intern or something, so she takes care of the magical shit as well as the having one female in the movie. A modern touch I got a kick out of was when they’re in a tower planning to assassinate the king from a distance and Goosefat Bill unrolls his bow and arrows from a blanket like they always do with sniper rifles in movies.
The score by Daniel Pemberton (THE COUNSELOR) is sometimes dominated by fast and heavy percussion and rhythms that suggest a medieval version of electronic dance music.
It would be cool if every once in a while the Mortal Kombat guy yelled “LEGEND OF THE SWORD!”
I honestly think it could use some rock ‘n roll like KULL THE CONQUEROR or A KNIGHT’S TALE, but they leave it at some kind of warbly old timey folk ballad thing called “The Devil and the Huntsman” by British singer Sam Lee.
Believe or not, the pleasures are not all surface. In the prologue, King Uther, on the advice of Bedivere, makes the wise decision to not blame all “Mages” for the elephant attack, namedropping Merlin as an example of a Mage who has greatly contributed to the kingdom. This is kind of like the opposite of 300’s kill ’em all and throw your own soldiers off a cliff for being born with birth defects militarism. But racial/religious conflict is less an interest to Ritchie than class themes. The movie argues that Arthur is only capable of defeating his evil uncle because of his struggles in life. Had he been able to stay safely in the castle (and had his father not been killed by a demon straight out of a Frank Frazetta painting) he’d be some dumb rich kid who could never pull it off.
That’s also kind of the theme of Ritchie-associate Matthew Vaughn’s KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, except LEGEND OF THE SWORD leaves you confident that in the sequel Arthur will still have love for the streets, he won’t turn into a fancy lad. They present him as some guy you got into a fight with at a bar but then you talked to him and realized he wasn’t such a meathead and now you’re kinda friends. At the end (SPOILER I guess?) he’s brought a bunch of dudes together and started building his Round Table and is gonna be a relatable bro-king. And I totally didn’t pick up on I but learned from reading articles about casting that “The Mage” is apparently supposed to be Guinevere. So they’ll fall in love and they’ll introduce Sir Lancelot but hopefully he’ll be an orc or an extreme athlete or something.
Wait, what’s that you said? LEGEND OF THE SWORD is expected to lose $150 million? So it is possible that the six film series they originally announced was a little too ambitious and might not necessarily happen per se? Well, that’s a poor attitude. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Part 1 of 1 actually fought a long battle to be up there on the screen where I saw it with two other people in the theater one week after release. Ritchie originally developed a King Arthur script with TRAINSPOTTING writer John Hodge, but it (and a Bryan Singer remake of EXCALIBUR) got cancelled in 2011 when Warner Brothers thought they were gonna do David (WEDDING CRASHERS) Dobkin’s ARTHUR & LANCELOT, a buddy movie version starring Kit Harrington and Joel Kinnaman. When that got too expensive Ritchie got in there again but he used a different script by Joby Harold. (Dobkin ended up with a producer credit.) And then after all that it turned out America still wasn’t ready for King Arthurmania. At least not in this version.
Hunnam is one of these guys who ended up starring in a bunch of big movies before the world seemed entirely sold on him. I’m not ready to follow him into battle, but I found him to be a more compelling presence here than in the arguably better PACIFIC RIM. Ritchie manages to build him up to be pretty cool, but lets him down a little with action that’s more generic than the rest of the movie. It’s fine, and it’s cool that the climactic battle takes place inside his own childhood flashback, but I think a few more spectacular feats of violence would drive the character and the movie home.
Also, like most sword movies these days, it could use some god damn color. The occasional yellow fire is not enough.
I can’t swear on a Blu-Ray of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (original) that this is on the level of Ritchie’s fantastic THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. two summers ago. But I am addicted to matinees of the lowbrow fantasy sword dude subgenre, and this was more fun for me than most of them. I guess it comes down to this: if the idea of Guy Ritchie doing a sword and sorcery movie without pretending not to be Guy Ritchie makes you smile, then this is worth seeing.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.