Rated PG-13 (Violence, Action, Suggestive Content, Brief Strong Language)
Directed, Written, and Produced by Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)
Also Written by Joby Harold (Awake, Robin Hood), Lionel Wigram (Sherlock Holmes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), and David Dobkin (Jack the Giant Slayer, The Judge)
Also Produced by Akiva Goldsman (Lone Survivor, Winter’s Tale), Joby Harold (Edge of Tomorrow, Robin Hood), Tory Tunnell (Holy Rollers, My Blind Brother), Steve Clark-Hall (The Trench, Vampire Killers), and Lionel Wigram (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)
Cinematography by John Mathieson (Gladiator, The Kingdom of Heaven)
Music by Daniel Pemberton (The Awakening, Steve Jobs)
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, and Eric Bana
Why can’t we get a legitimately great King Arthur movie?
Jim Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur is good and retains many of the original mythological elements, though it has some major issues. There’s 1961’s Disney animated feature Sword in the Stone, one of Disney’s more underrated films. And both Jerry Zucker’s take in 1995, First Knight, and Antoine Fuqua’s try in 2004, King Arthur, are at least worth a watch – especially First Knight for Sean Connery’s portrayal of an older, war-weary Arthur – but they are lightweight, bland, and disappointingly absent of magic. Oh, and obviously Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Yet we’ve never had that killer Arthur film, and maybe we never will. Maybe the Arthurian elements of Lord of the Rings is the closest we’ll ever come. Perhaps people don’t really care about the legends of King Arthur, which is sad, since the formation of the King Arthur tale is one of the main origins of the “chosen one” story and the classic “hero’s journey.”
I seriously doubt that anyone expected Guy Ritchie’s take on King Arthur to right this trend. But what I personally hoped to get out of it was a Guy Ritchie Arthur movie. I have really liked Ritchie’s past work, and I even unashamedly loved The Man from U.N.C.L.E. A Ritchie Arthur tale should be fun and crazy. And is this one?
The short answer is yes. The long answer… let’s get into that.
Now Legend of the Sword is not a great movie, but as with this year’s Ghost in the Shell, I liked it and don’t understand the critics’ hatred. At no point does this movie ask or pretend to be more than it is. And what is it? An awesome time!
If the marketing didn’t do anything for you, and as such you are uninterested, let me tell you this: Legend of the Sword‘s marketing team really dropped the ball on this one. For one, it was released at possibly the worst weekend it could have been in 2017, between the heavy hitters Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 and Alien: Covenant. On top of that, the trailers made the film look like a boring, strange, and serious historical film, a la Ridley Scott’s 2010 attempt at another English legend, Robin Hood. In all actuality, this movie is a grand but fun fantasy adventure about destiny.
Guy Ritchie has a certain style. It’s very modern, very chaotic, fast paced, and kinetic. Ritchie took this style and melded it effectively to revitalize Sherlock Holmes, bringing to life two of the best Hollywood Holmes movies ever made, action-packed adventures without sacrificing what makes Sherlock Sherlock. The question is, does Ritchie’s style work in a medieval fantasy? Well… some of the time.
Here, Ritchie reimagines Arthur as the born king who, instead of growing up in royal courts, grew up in and near a brothel, learning to fight and taking his mettle from the mean streets of Londinium, a process displayed with an effective but unintentionally hilarious montage near the beginning of the movie, where we learn everything we need to know about Arthur’s crappy path to adulthood. Ritchie also reimagines many of the obstacles standing in Arthur’s way, and the people who helped him overcome them.
When Arthur is but a wee lad, his father, Uther Pendragon (Bana), is king of the Britons, in a time where humans and magicians, mages, live side-by-side in relative peace. However, soon comes the warlock Mordred, thirsty for power and hungry with the desire for mages to dominate mankind, as he corrupts his wizardry and sieges Camelot, the capitol of Briton. Not all the mages support Mordred, though, and one of them, Merlin, crafts Uther a powerful sword, Excalibur by name. Excalibur, which can only be yielded by a Pendragon, brings power previously unknown to mankind, and with it Uther destroys Mordred’s armies and Mordred himself.
Meanwhile, Uther’s evil brother, Vortigern (Law), becomes thirsty for power too. He makes a deal with dark forces to organize a coup against Uther, and, thanks to a sacrifice by Vortigern, sea witches and a demon knight come together to Vortigern’s aid, slaying Uther and his wife but accidentally leaving the once and future king to miraculously escape in a boat down the river, eventually landing in Londinium, where he is raised.
Yet destiny is not done with Arthur (Hunnam), and the magic in Excalibur will soon bring Arthur the ability to lead a rebellion against Vortigern and his forces of darkness, if only Arthur will accept.
One thing that really thrilled me about Legend of the Sword is its inclusion of fantasy elements, and I was happy that not only is fantasy present, but it also plays a major role. The distrust between mankind and mages, the creatures Mordred conjures to his aid in the beginning of the film, the beasts one mage uses for good, the water demons who give Vortigern powerful help at a price, the monster that the sea demons bring about, the fantastical woodland beings toward the end of the film, the Lady of the Lake… all deliciously realized. And above them all rises Excalibur. We’ve never seen Excalibur this powerful in a movie before, and it’s fantastic.
Delving into the non-story aspects, the acting is pretty solid. Hunnam’s dedication as Arthur is obvious. Spirited and appealing, he carries the movie likably as the main character. Jude Law hams it up pretty awesomely as Vortigern, and his performance is also really good. There are moments where the script has him do some pretty crazy, EVIILL stuff, and the way he acts through these moments make themsomewhat believable. The supporting acting is kind of mixed. All of the actors are decent, and most of their insufficiencies stem from the script. For instance, I especially disliked the underuse of the archer, Goosefat Bill, played well by Aidan Gillen. Several others did well also, but were likewise underused. However, one actor who was used enough but did a poor job was Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, here simply known as The Mage, an advocate of Merlin’s. This French-Spanish actress has turned in good work elsewhere, but here she is clumsy and awkward.
Which brings to mind. Why not just have Merlin? At last, a movie he could have been awesome in, and he’s not even there, really. We catch glimpses of him, and characters speak of him, but that’s it. One of literature’s coolest characters relegated to the background in a movie where he could have shone? A shame and a missed opportunity.
As for character development, Arthur’s hero’s journey is portrayed fascinatingly, and I love how his team members each fall into their individual places. None of the characters here really ever grow or change that much, though. Rather, the emphasis is whether Arthur will embrace his destiny, which he fights against at first, and that is shown well.
The cinematography is mixed. Usually, I like most of what Ritchie does with his camera, and Mathieson has directed cinematography for some of my favorites, including this year’s Logan. But there’s also too much shaky camera work and fast cuts, especially during fight scenes, almost obscuring the action. Seemingly, good fight choreography was happening, and it looked great when I could see it, as well as containing a lot of that Guy Ritchie energy. (We could also get into the occasionally frantic, mish-mash editing, which is unnecessarily confusing.) Speaking more broadly, the cinematography is handled competently, and when the camera isn’t going crazy, I liked many of the shots, which captured many of the visuals effectively and interestingly.
Which moves us into the visuals. The CGI and visuals in general look very cool. There’s especially a scene where the Lady of the Lake rises to the surface of the water with bright Excalibur outstretched in her hand, wearing a white dress that flows out beautifully behind her, starkly contrasting with the deep blue water around her. It looks wondrously mythical, and I like all the mythological designs. The creature designs are neat, the CGI is almost always quite good, and there are many well-built sets. They did a fine job with the costumes, too, but they made the hair and makeup far too modern and clean.
While the visual side of a movie pulls you in, an appropriate score must accompany them. And I do not think Ritchie’s and Pemberton’s penchant for loud, frenetic, mostly modern music befits the film, even with its updated tone. In fact, it’s often distracting and prevented me from getting sucked into the story.
At least the story is good. And the screenplay is pretty decent overall. I can say I was never bored. I was consistently entertained, and though the pacing can be kind of uneven and some character decisions strange, I never really felt a lull. The script’s dialogue on the other hand… pretty dang poor. It goes back and forth between being witty and quick to idiotic and cringey, and between trying to sound both old-fashioned and modern. Not atrocious necessarily, but just cringeworthy at multiple junctures. I laughed out loud a few times.
Overall, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword thoroughly entertained me and was basically what I expected of a Guy Ritchie directed King Arthur tale. It was cool, fun, and enjoyable. Most of the fantasy movies that have come out in the past few years have been crap. They really have. And though a lot of the critics out there may disagree with me on this, I say this one isn’t. With a real energy to it, and though maybe not much more, it’s a heck of a time. I do recommend seeing it in theaters, as it is definitely a big screen type experience.
I’m going to give King Arthur: Legend of the Sword a 70%.