Director Guy Ritchie made a name for himself off gangster yarns, so it’s no surprise his take on the Arthurian legend would follow suit.
In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the great hero is imagined as a rowdy street urchin, raised in a brothel by various no-goodniks after Moses-ing away from his father’s regicide. It’s a hard-knock life for lil’ Artie, but years of getting beat up, scheming, and learning kung fu mold him into the streetwise beefcake necessary for any gritty action remake.
Once grown, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) finds himself not a king, but a small-town goodfella. Though his heart is made of gold, to be sure.
After defending an abused prostitute’s honor, Arthur finds himself in dutch with some of the usurping king’s goons and must flee his home. In his haste, he stumbles into some other king’s goons. They notice he doesn’t carry a brand on his arm, a marker showing which men, as is law of the land, have attempted to pull a certain sword out of a certain stone. They ship Arthur off to Camelot to try his hand, and by the power of Grayskull he removes it, setting off a chain of events that sees Arthur and the new king, his murderous uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), battling for the throne.
Obviously Ritchie and his co-writers take some extreme liberties with the King Arthur mythology here. To some degree it’s appreciated. The story has been told so many times over the past millennium that if you’re going to do it again, you might as well have fun with it.
But while it’s a novel take to dream up Arthur as a rough-and-tumble Vito Corleone type, it’s another to change the story and characters so drastically — in many ways that don’t serve the script in any perceivable sense — and then just mash the bloated hodgepodge into a two-hour runtime.
And given that there still hasn’t been a good closer telling of the King Arthur legend in modern cinema, it’s a wonder why they’d opt for such a convoluted script. The movie opens with Arthur’s dad murdering Mordred, the character who, in the legend, is Arthur’s son and eventual killer. Jude Law’s character then simply tags in to fulfill pretty much the exact same role as Mordred. Besides chewing up clock, there’s really no point to it.
That said, Guy Ritchie is one of those directors who makes love-’em-or-hate-’em movies, so fans of his visual style and humor may still find the movie enjoyable despite the major story issues.
Legend of the Sword is an unapologetic action movie, and Ritchie’s usual penchant for hyper-stylized fight scenes is on steroids here. CGI and the fantasy genre have clearly unbridled him, and the result is a series of epic action sequences more akin to video games than a feature film. Excalibur essentially gives Arthur super speed and strength, and in tandem with Ritchie’s cinematography and a gigantic theater screen, the movie proves to be a frantic, polarizing experience.
There’s so much happening — so many characters, so many maximal camera techniques — that it’s hard to concentrate on a singular storyline. As a result, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword somehow feels both hyperactive and dragging. Gamers and Ritchie devotees might love it, but for your average moviegoer, it’s dynamic to a fault.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law
Theater: Area theaters, opens Friday, May 12