6 out of 10
Charlie Hunnam as Arthur
Directed by Guy Ritchie
King Arthur Legend of the Sword Review:
Some stories last, not just staying in our popular imagination in their original form, but drawing us back to them again and again and again for new tellings. It’s like the original version of the franchise or the brand name. What easier way was there to get a listener to pay attention to your tale than to embed in something old and well-known? What easier way was there to express your love for a specific story than to try and pattern your own variation, eeking new mileage out of the old beauty? If Homer wasn’t above it, then who are we to put our noses up to it?
That depends very much on the nature of the variation. After a few thousand years of the written word, the most popular myths and characters have been revisited many, many times. Early on, it was enough to rewrite the old story in the modern idiom to attract new fans put off by the old-fashioned, like remaking an old black and white classic in color with modern language. Today it requires a new perspective, a hidden history, which somehow both freshens the old story and throws its classic elements in sharp relief via the contrast. The risk mutates from being too familiar, just the latest iteration of ‘shaken not stirred,’ to being so alien as to be unrecognizable.
Whatever may be said about King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the word overfamiliar won’t be part of it. There is a magic sword called Excalibur and it must be drawn from a stone. Arthur (Hunnam), the blonde orphan of the former king (Bana), is the only one who can draw the sword. That much remains unchanged in director Guy Ritchie’s take on the archetypal British myth; almost everything else is up for grabs. Sure, there’s a round table and the word Merlin is spoken, but the further we get from that core of prince and sword, the fuzzier it gets. No Lancelot, no Guinevere, no love triangles or knightly deeds. Before too long, there’s not much that’s classically recognizable as a King Arthur tale at all. That’s a good thing, or at least it has potential, but what’s not there is only half the story.
So what is there? This version of Arthur is not a plucky squire toiling in landowner obscurity but a street-smart gangster living on the mean streets of Londinium who wouldn’t be too out of his depth in one of Ritchie’s early crime films. Unaware of his parentage, he’s focused on getting by, taking care of the assorted sneak thieves and criminals under his care, and staying out of the sights of King Vortigern (Law), brother of the king and usurper of his thrown. It melds classic Arthurian legend with some Robin Hood, some Moses, a bunch of Ritchie’s earlier works and even some old Dungeons & Dragons. Purists may well suffer head explosions at the depth and breadth of anachronisms, if not from Arthur doing his best Jason Statham circa Snatched impression than probably when either Sir Bedivere shows up in the form of Djimon Hounsou or the discovery of a Shaolin Temple full of kung fu warriors in the middle of first millennium London.
It’s like a ten-year old’s retelling of Arthurian legend and everything that entails. Yes, it ignores convention and cliché, relentlessly charting new territory and displaying a sometimes breathtaking imagination. But it does so by ignoring things like logic and coherence in the name of ruthless plot progression. And in the process, it suggests that what’s really enthralling about Arthur has nothing to do with chivalry and tragedy, it’s really about a son’s attempt to live up to the father he never met.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Hunnam is at his best wearing Arthur’s streetwise persona. He ambushes Vikings, fast talks barons and plans ambushes with brio, tossing off wise cracks to his lackeys and working well within Ritchie’s patented non-linear dialogue as exchanges transform into a Russian doll of flashbacks all relying on Hunnam to tie them together. It’s a fun and funny approach to classic sword and sorcery and if you’re not at all familiar with Ritchie’s earlier work, it may well come out as refreshing. But from time to time he feels compelled to delve into Arthur’s inner pain, in a way he thankfully never bothered in his old crime films, or put Excalibur in his hands and let him lead an army in a battle of freedom and the clash of tone is hard to ignore. It’s not terribly difficult to be snarky, it’s somewhat more so to be successfully sentimental; it’s incredibly difficult to be both at the same time. King Arthur bounces around like a tennis ball, reflecting off the obstacles Ritchie has set up but not entirely under his control.
If he had a stronger supporting cast, it wouldn’t be such a problem, but King Arthur is so incredibly focused on its main character it doesn’t know or care what to do about its fellows. Arthur’s fellow roustabouts are decently developed and differentiated, but the rest of his fellows are generally interchangeable though at least they’re not pointless. Merlin stand-in Bergès-Frisbey exists just to spout exposition and try and get Arthur to fight, while Law’s Vortigern does nothing but walk around and talk in a menacing whisper. Characters appear and disappear as required in a given scene without connecting to a larger narrative. Annabelle Wallis, for instance, appears as a seemingly important noble who instead gets vague threats from Vortigern before disappearing, never to be seen again until the very end. It seems we’re meant to be worried for her and what Vortigern might do to her, but we’ve been given no reason to care before or after she appears. Who are all of these people and why do we care what happens to them? No one knows.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword feels like nothing so much as a series of scenes being invented and re-invented while filming was going on, with no one knowing quite what they wanted the end result would be. There’s a lot of creativity on display and a willingness to experiment which films of this sort don’t always get, but in the rush to change things, how to put the new pieces together hasn’t been bothered with. The end result is an interesting piece of summer film which does more and less than it promises.