Movie Review: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”

Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillen, Eric Bana, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Neil Maskell
Guy Ritchie

Director Guy Ritchie has had a fair amount of success breathing new life into old properties (“Sherlock Holmes,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”), but when it was announced that he would be helming an adaptation of the King Arthur legend, something about the pairing seemed off, and it’s a feeling that permeates throughout “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Ritchie’s unique filmmaking style is constantly pushing back against the more traditional elements of a summer tentpole movie, and while that may have worked to good effect in the aforementioned projects, there’s a more noticeable divide here that prevents the film from having a clear identity. “Legend of the Sword” has plenty of great moments, but the sum of those parts is disappointingly mediocre.

The film opens in grand fashion as King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) defends Camelot from an army of giant elephants under the control of the evil sorcerer Mordred (Rob Knighton). Upon his victory, however, Uther is betrayed by his younger brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who murders the king and steals his crown, but not before Uther’s young son Arthur manages to escape down the river. Forced to survive on the tough streets of Londinium, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up to become a small-time criminal who operates out of the very brothel where he was raised.

Meanwhile, Vortigern has become increasingly concerned that Uther’s true heir will return one day to reclaim the throne, so he’s begun rounding up all the men of a certain age and challenged them to pull the magical sword Excalibur, which can only be wielded by a descendant of the Pendragon bloodline, from its resting place. When Arthur actually succeeds, thus revealing himself as the prophesized Born King, Vortigern swiftly orders his execution. Fortunately, Arthur is rescued by a small group of resistance fighters, including Uther’s most trusted knight Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and a mysterious disciple of Merlin (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), who encourage him to accept his destiny and put an end to his uncle’s tyrannical rule.

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a very strange film indeed, blending Ritchie’s trademark quirks (overcranked shots, snappy editing and dialogue) with the usual sword-and-sorcery essentials. But while it makes for a decent fantasy flick, it’s a rather lackluster addition to Arthurian lore. It never really feels like a King Arthur movie despite its attempts to pepper the story with recognizable characters and events, and therein lies the problem. Though Ritchie’s twist on the material isn’t as damning as you might expect (even if the decision to give Arthur superhuman abilities when holding Excalibur will likely divide viewers), every time it seems like “Legend of the Sword” is finally beginning to find its groove, the film takes two steps back, like when David Beckham randomly pops up in a misguided and incredibly distracting cameo.

Surprisingly, it’s the more Ritchie-esque moments that work best, and key to that is the casting of Hunnam, who holds the film together with his wily charisma. Though he’s already proven on the TV series “Sons of Anarchy” that he can act, this is the first time that Hunnam has shown real movie star quality. Law is also good as the power-drunk sorcerer who turns against his family, but that’s only because he can do a lot with very little; the character as written is pretty underdeveloped. The rest of the cast is filled with likable actors such as Bana, Hounsou and relative unknown Bergès-Frisbey (who reportedly beat out bigger names for the role), although Aiden Gillen is the only one who leaves much of an impression as the oddly named Goosefat Bill.

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but while there’s plenty to enjoy as a Guy Ritchie fan (including some cool visuals and another great score by Daniel Pemberton), the film suffers from the same problem that plagued Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” – no one wants to sit through a messy origin story to get to the good stuff. From the octopus witches who supply Vortigern’s power to the other magical creatures glimpsed throughout, it’s evident that Ritchie is just touching the tip of the iceberg as far as this world is concerned, and the fact that he might never get to explore it further in other King Arthur stories is almost as frustrating as the film he chose to make instead.