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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is probably better than you’re expecting…But it’s no where near as good as it could be. Famed filmmaker Guy Ritchie, best known for his British gangster film Snatch, as well as the Robert Downey, Jr. led Sherlock Holmes films, now sets his sights on a new take on the legend of the Fifth Century British leader. Many versions of the Arthur legend have been told over time, in the forms of books, movies, and television, so many that there’s no definitive version. The closest we’ve gotten to a definitive version of the story on film is John Boorman’s 1981 film, Excalibur, which has really led the pack for almost forty years. Now, Ritchie has arrived to try to infuse new life into the story, but what we’re given is a messy, off kilter, but oddly charming film that never lives up to its full potential, but never fully falls flat on its face either.
When an attack on Uther Pendragon’s (Eric Bana) castle leaves he and his wife dead, the kingdom is left in upheaval. But before his death, Uther puts his son, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), in a small boat that he sets adrift down the river, where he’s eventually found in Londinium. Raised in a brothel, Arthur is unaware of his royal lineage, and that he’s the man who’s rumored to save the Kingdom from the evil Vortigern (Jude Law). King of the streets, Arthur quickly becomes the target of Vortigern, and unwittingly unveils himself to the world at large that he’s their savior, when he pulls Excalibur from the stone. Arthur wanting nothing to do with his destiny, tries to turn his back on his people, and the power that Excalibur grants him, only to be faced with a much darker future if he doesn’t accept who he truly is.
The above summary of the film is an oversimplified version of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which spends much of its time doing way too much and never really having much to show for it. The biggest problem being, it’s a film that much of the time is at war with itself, and has chosen to go down the path of an unnecessary origin story that we’ve seen many times before. Ultimately, that is the biggest downfall of the film, especially in light of the superhero films we’ve been given over the last fifteen years. What once could have been a unique origin of a familiar story now feels hollow and tired, as we’ve seen it so many times before.
That’s not to say that there’s not things that work in the origin story, because there is, but the problem is it all just feels too been there, done that. The film’s first act, when we’re finally introduced to Hunnam’s Arthur after the film’s prologue, is the film at its strongest. This is where Ritchie really shines, as we see Arthur as a street hustler, who is very similar to the classic Ritchie flavor we see in his films. Quick cuts with quirky and fun dialogue, and a real emphasis on the characters and their relationships. It felt very much like Snatch, which was a pleasant surprise, and it very much humanized Arthur, who Hunnam actually plays very well. Hunnam seems to get a lot of flack for being a flat or boring actor, but he’s really quite good in the role, which shouldn’t surprise those who were fans of his tv series, Sons of Anarchy. He’s very talented, and this film, as muddled as it is, uses him well.
Once the film shifts gears, and Arthur is taken into custody by Vortigern’s guards, the film starts to lose focus. Vortigern knows that Uther’s son must be in his kingdom, and is forcing all the men that are Arthur’s age to try and pull the sword from the stone. The idea is if he can find the boy, and kill him, he’ll be granted the power of Excalibur, which will help him rule his kingdom. The problem is, Vortigern just isn’t interesting as a character, and he’s really not all that threatening. Jude Law feels like he’s in an entirely different film from everyone else, which doesn’t feel like is his fault, so much as it’s how the character is written. Maybe that’s a good thing, because then you’re always rooting for Arthur, because you just want to see Vortigern go down, but a great hero should have at least a good villain to fight, and sadly it just doesn’t happen here.
As expected, Arthur does get the sword, and the movie then quickly shifts into a superhero origin story, complete with training montage. Arthur doesn’t want anything to do with his destiny, but is forced into training some of Merlin’s mages. The problem is, this isn’t that interesting, and the film decides to try and speed us through it at an accelerated rate. We don’t really want to see him train, but it’s also some of the very little action that the film has to offer, so skipping it makes the movie drag on. The above is basically the problem with the movie overall: it just isn’t that interesting for most of its run time. While it tries to do something new with the material, it only really works in the third act, and otherwise, it just feels like a retread of better movies. For a film that’s supposed to launch a franchise, that’s a death blow out the gate.
That’s not that there isn’t fun to be had here. As previously mentioned, the first act, which is the most Guy Ritchie the movie is, is actually a ton of fun. It feels new and exciting, but that never translates to the rest of the film. The third act tries to go back to it, but it quickly becomes a video game, with some rather dodge looking special effects that feel like incredibly outdated, instead of cool. There’s a bit of a Sherlock Holmes vibe to way it’s stylized, but because it looks a bit out of place, it’s not so much cool as it is overly distracting. It’s supposed to show off the look and feel of Excalibur at its full potential, but instead it feels a bit out of place. The movie is at its best when it’s grounded and having fun with the legend, not turning it into a superhero film, which is really why the movie never feels cohesive. It’s clear that there was a lot of moving parts that didn’t quite see eye to eye on the film they were trying to deliver, and so it just feels like a mishmash of parts.
The sad truth of the matter is that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a film that should be a new and exciting take on the material, but instead it feels like a rehash of better films. Ritchie tries hard to infuse life into a well worn story, but it never quite comes together. Hunnam is fantastic in the film, and he’s able to carry the film, but he deserved a better showcase for his talent. It’s movies like this that are truly disheartening, because you can tell that there was a better movie underneath that is never fully realized. That’s not to say you won’t have fun while watching it, because it is entertaining, but it just never comes together as a fulfilling experience. If you have some extra time on your hands, it might be worth checking out, but if you’re on the fence, it might be better to go something else you’re excited about instead of jumping into this tired and worn out take on the material.