Combining various pieces of Arthurian legend, fantasy spectacle and Guy Ritchie’s slick direction, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a weird mish-mash of a movie. Never settling on the just what sort of film it wants to be, it’ll turn on a dime from being an epic fantasy, complete with mages, giant elephants and magic swords, to a street-level gangster flick, with scruffy Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) and his mates looking to score. Strangely, a lot of what’s happening in Legend of the Sword works, the problem is that all of these pieces don’t necessarily work together.
This odd incongruity is clear right from the very beginning. Legend of the Sword opens with a flashback of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), armed with his mighty and magical sword, Excalibur, driving back the invading forces of the evil mage, Mordred. It’s a scene lifted from many a fantasy epic, complete with action and armies so massive they might as well have wandered in from a Peter Jackson flick. (This is where those giant elephants come in, and they are awesome, make no mistake.)
The kingdom is seemingly safe, but there’s actually treachery afoot, and soon Uther is betrayed by his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law). Uther and his nameless wife manage to spirit Arthur away safely in a boat, but do not themselves survive. An orphaned, infant Arthur then washes up on the shores of Londinium where he’s taken in by some dear whores and raised in a brothel.
It’s here the movie makes its first drastic change of tone, becoming almost instantly one of Ritchie’s patented flicks about gangs of street-wise chums navigating the back alleys. The opening credits serve as a montage, with Arthur growing from a street urchin to leader of a small gang, all the while looking after his own to remind us he’s a good guy at heart. Life is hard but he makes his way, that is, until he’s rounded up by the king’s men with others his age and taken away to Camelot. There, men are lined up and made to try and pull a sword from a stone. When they fail, they’re branded, and King Vortigern’s weird obsession continues.
Until Arthur, who with Pendragon blood in his veins, is able to free the sword. Discovered to be “the born king”, Arthur is unwittingly wrapped up in destiny and revolution. Aided by a mix of his father’s sworn knights, his brothers from the streets, and a mysterious mage, Arthur must learn on the fly how to wield Excalibur and lead the fight against his uncle to reclaim his birthright.
When Ritchie’s fast-paced flavor takes over, Legend of the Sword is a fun and distinct entry in the Arthurian film adaptations. Surrounding Hunman (an adequate leading man) are stellar character actors, like Djimon Hounsou and Aiden Gillen, who bring life to what would be otherwise bland roles. The best bits tend to when this ragtag group are planning their attacks and heists, scenes that are quintessential Ritchie, with quick dialogue an even quicker cuts between scenes of the plan being discussed and the plan in motion. Their banter is believable and it adds real charm.
The other side of the movie is for the most part concerned with Law’s Vortigern and his evil machinations to make himself the most powerful mage since Mordred. It’s here that Legend of the Sword goes for high fantasy full-stop, complete with weird squid sirens to whom Vortigern sacrifices first his wife then his daughter (because what else are the women for, am I right?) in order to increase his power. Law relishes his time as this ludicrously evil dude, but he’s never really allowed to fully ham it up. And to be fair, it’s unclear whether that would actually help or hurt this disjointed movie.
Speaking of women, the one woman with an ounce of real impact in the film is Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey’s mage. She’s cool, mysterious, and has a real other-worldly vibe about her. Refreshingly, she doesn’t become a love interest and there’s no last minute reveal she’s actually Guinevere or such nonsense, leaving her mage to stand as just a neat twist on the more typical, bearded wizard role.
Much of the action in Legend of Sword is wild and frenetic, but it quickly loses clarity. The 3D is definitely overused. There’ simply way too many arrows and swords poking off the screen. It’s distracting. The final big set piece falls prey to bad CGI and too much bullet-time, with the confrontation between Arthur and a maxed-out Vortigern feeling more like a final boss fight from a video game (complete with moments where gamers will fully expect to see a cue for a quick time event on the screen).
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is clearly meant as the opening chapter for a new franchise of King Arthur films, but there’s no way audiences will leave this film clamoring for more. It isn’t a terrible film, but without ever gelling its disparate elements the final product is tedious.