Still Better than Clive Owen: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" Review
The legend of King Arthur has taken quite the beating on screen. From the yet to be released Transformers: The Last Knight directed by everyone's favorite Canadian auteur Michael Bay to the "grounded in reality" mess that was Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur, Arthurian legend hasn't been the subject of a truly worthy film since 1981's Excalibur. However, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword does something interesting and unique with Arthurian legend and, while it does stumble in places, it succeeds due to some spot on casting and exciting action sequences.
The film follows the rise of Arthur Pendragon as he must defeat his uncle Vortigern who forcefully took the throne for himself from Arthur's father Uther. During his journey to reclaim the throne, he begins to gather his eventual Knights of the Round Table and recapture Excalibur, the sword that is his birthright. It's the quintessential Arthurian origin story but with some tweaks to the main mythos namely the absence of Merlin, Vortigern is never mentioned as Arthur's uncle in legend, and a slight glossing over of the importance of the Mordred character.
The changes to the mythos aside, the story in the film is fast-paced and yet at times, it stumbles over its own feet. Guy Ritchie has a particular style (montages with fast cuts and rapid-fire dialogue) that are utilized in a fashion that doesn't add much to the plot progression. They seemingly exist only for the box to be checked so that the viewer is aware that yes, this is a Guy Ritchie-directed film. It's a shame since the film could have been closer to Snatch in a pseudo-Medieval era but it feels closer to his other recent forays into big-budget films (Sherlock Holmes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) than it does his first two films.
The real trepidation that I had with watching Ritchie's film was the casting of Charlie Hunnam as the titular once and future king. In previous roles, Hunnam was a poor man's Tom Hardy which isn't saying much since both actors are devoid of on-screen charisma or ability to carry a film on their own. However, Hunnam is quite good as the shirt-optional Arthur, bringing enough swagger and snark to a role that is normally played straighter with a more valiant angle. He's the smartest guy in the room by his own accounts and is reluctant to become King as he would rather run a brothel and take a pittance from local shopkeeps in Londinium. Again, it's a novel spin on a played-out origin story. It's a shame that Hunnam's strengths were played to in Sons of Anarchy yet it seems whenever he is cast in films they don't allow him to utilize his natural swagger and bravado.
Apart from Hunnam, the supporting cast varies from adequate to underutilized. As a fan of Game of Thrones, it's always nice to see Aidan Gillen in a film playing a heroic character rather than the slimy yet lovable Littlefinger. Djimon Hounsou is fantastic as well but that's always the case as he is one of Hollywood's best character actors who is given the task of playing the mentor role to Arthur. Astrid Berges-Frisbey rounds out the main supporting players as the unnamed Mage who also helps Arthur learn to accept his destiny as King. It's unfortunate that's she only given a handful of lines but it feels as if her character is being saved for a "future film".
The real star of the supporting cast is Jude Law as the villainous Vortigern; you can tell he's the antagonist since he wears all-black throughout the entire film. Coming off his recent role as the bombastic Pope Pius XIII in The Young Pope, Law continues the bombast as Vortigern. He murders his family members with no remorse, chews every line, and steals every scene that he is in. As good as Hunnam is as Arthur, Law overshadows him every time they are on screen together. Law should make it a point to take more villain roles as if he approaches them with the aplomb that he did in this film.
Casting and direction aside, the action is the film is also well done. Aside from the out of place CGI elephants at the beginning of the film, the rest of the fight scenes are shot in Guy Ritchie's signature style. The idea that Excalibur can, at will, slow down time allowing Arthur to dash around like Quicksilver is an interesting idea that works when pitted against Vortigern's demon knight but makes the rest of the fights feel a tad one sided. The chase through Londinium is the highlight of the film however and the usage of low angles and handheld cameras allows for a more intimate experience than a normal chase scene. It's a memorable scene that's amplified by the amazing score by Daniel Pemberton.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is currently sitting at a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, 2% lower than one of the worst films ever made, Batman v Superman. Does it deserve the overwhelmingly negative reviews that it's been receiving? Not really as it's not a truly terrible film but rather one who forgoes substance for style. The film is nice to look at but it lacks a truly memorable story to go along with its visuals. For most, it'll be a watch once it gets to Netflix or other streaming platforms but, with Ritchie claiming that it is the first of six films, it would seem that it is the first big bomb of the summer. If it holds that title once the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean, sixth Alien film, and fourth entry into the laughable DC Extended Universe are released remains to be seen, however.