History is always open to cinematic re-interpretation - and in fact, re-imaginings of historical events have yielded fun films such as Inglourious Basterds or Forrest Gump. The King Arthur legend has had its own series of re-imaginings and re-interpretations on the big screen over the last few decades, with Antonie Fuqua's 2004 King Arthur being the most modernized (and hated) telling... that is, until Guy Ritchie's frenetic (and very loose) version of the legend arrives with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Ritchie's telling of the legend begins with Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who wielded Merlin's enchanted sword Excalibur to defend Camelot from the threat of evil mage, Mordred. Upon defeating Mordred, Uther is betrayed by his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), who summons dark magic to slay his brother and The Queen - almost killing his child nephew Arthur, as well, before the boy is spirited away to safety.
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up in the hard streets of Londinium. At fist he's raised by prostitutes in a brothel, until he comes of age and graduates to being a small-time gangster alongside his boys Wetstick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Back Lack (Neil Maskell). Things take a turn when a rebel fighter is found in Arthur's brothel, leading to the would-be kingpin being hauled off to be tested in Vortigern's search for the man who can pull Excalibur from its fabled stone prison. Arthur is as surprised as anyone when the sword comes free in his grip; what happens next is a series of events that leads a scrappy young man from the underbelly to becoming the king of legend.
Charlie Hunnam Stars in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
With his unique and totally non-traditional telling of the King Arthur legend, Guy Ritchie ultimately creates a very mixed bag of cinematic experience. On the plus side, Legend of the Sword has all the swagger, edge, and technical flare of one of Ritchie's early (and beloved) London underworld films (Lock Stock, Snatch) - not to mention, the same great ensemble cast chemistry. Actor Charlie Hunnam uses his Sons of Anarchy swagger to make the role of Arthur his own, and backing him up are a cast of talented and diverse actors, including Djimon Hounsou (Fast and Furious 7), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), Tom Wu (Marco Polo), Neil Maskell (Humans), Annabelle Wallis (Annabelle) and Kingsley Ben-Adir (Vera). None of the actors, or their performances, are anything like the traditional King Arthur legend, but the cast manages to make their characters fun for what they are.
All of the good is unfortunately undermined by a terrible and scatter-brained story from Ritchie, his collaborator Lionel Wigram (Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and newcomer Joby Harold (The Flash). Legend of the Sword is rife with narrative flaws, dangling threads, and story arcs that fizzle out into nothing, without ever becoming relevant. Lost in that mess is Jude Law's Vortigern, who gets horribly short-changed as the central villain, with his motivations, backstory, and evil plot surrounded in so much confusion that, at one point, the characters themselves struggle to remember what's driving the story.
Along with the lack of narrative substance, we also get a lot of empty spectacle that seems out of place or extraneous in the film. Example: the film's opening sequence is a massive, CGI-laden set piece that somehow manages to confuse viewers rather than bringing them into the story. King Arthur has many throwaway sequences that eat up time and visual effects budget; the misapplication of resources becomes all the more apparent by the time we get to a silly and underwhelming climatic "boss battle," which is plastered with so much shoddy CGI and green screen that it looks ripped right out of a God of War video game.
In the end, Legend of the Sword is more of a disappointment than a straight up failure: For all the bombastic and silly-looking sequences in the film, there are just as many fun, classic-style Guy Ritchie cinematic flares that audiences will love (harness-cam chase sequences, slow-motion action, cleverly stylized dialogue and flashbacks, etc.). Indeed, King Arthur is at its best when it's functioning as a heist film set in the ancient London underbelly; whenever it tries to become a Medieval superhero origin, it quickly unravels to show the ugly seams of a director and creative team who didn't have the needed focus to pull together this ambitious reformatting of a classic legend.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword will be in theaters on May 12, 2017. It is 2 hours and 6 mins long, and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language.
Score: 2 out of 5 Stars
[H/T Warner Bros.]