Let’s get this out the way first. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t going to dethrone Excalibur as the definitive King Arthur film. It never had to and that was all but impossible anyway since the 1981 film still holds up today. Legend of the Sword doesn’t need to be Excalibur since it’s a good and borderline great retelling of the classic tale.
Years ago, the jealous Vortigern (Jude Law) betrayed his brother the king and seized the throne. The only thing standing in the way of his lifelong reign is his nephew, the only one who can raise the famed Excalibur from its stone slab.
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) isn’t interested in leading a rebellion despite the insistence of resistance leaders Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Bill (Aidan Gillen). Not that it matters since Arthur isn’t able to tap into Excalibur’s power. A mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who can control animals, teaches Arthur how to control the mighty sword. But it’s up to Arthur to learn how to become a hero.
Guy Ritchie directs and co-writes this retelling of the King Arthur mythos. I was worried Ritchie was going to go a little too ‘Guy Ritchie’ here and go heavy on the rapid fire humorous dialogue and editing. His style worked in the Robert Downey Jr.-led Sherlock Holmes films, but Arthur’s story needs a less winking tone.
There’s some trademark Ritchie moments, but Ritchie and fellow screenwriters Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram largely play the story straight.
Ritchie has taken the methodical approach to directing summer blockbusters. He understands world building and creates an elaborate world and unique characters. Annie Symons’ costumes, specifically the royal armor, are terrific and the set design work by Tina Jones makes this world a grounded, CGI-less feel.
The Knights of the Round Table have as much franchise potential of any other fantasy series of the last 20 years and Ritchie sets the foundation to make that a reality.
I appreciated Ritchie working in a diverse cast. So often filmmakers will embrace every fantasy cliché — wizards, dragons, magic, etc. — yet want to be authentic with the lack of minorities. Childhood pals Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and George (Tom Wu) provide valuable counsel along Arthur’s journey and aren’t just included to get killed off quickly.
Hunnam doesn’t seemed overwhelmed by headlining a film like he did in Pacific Rim. He shows poise, confidence and legit leading man charisma here. Law makes for a complex villain as he shows a believable range of emotions beyond a lust for power. Hounsou provides a welcome strong and stern presence.
In a savvy bit of casting, Eric Bana plays Arthur’s honorable, realm-defending father King Uther. Bana was terrific in Troy as the mighty Hector so it was great seeing him as another nearly unstoppable warrior. And as the norm for any film involving fantasy or knights, get your Game of Thrones cast counter out.
Excalibur is the ultimate maxed out superweapon capable of leveling armies without harming foes. It is truly the one sword to rule them all. Maybe modern audiences wouldn’t care about knights, but Excalibur provides Legend of the Sword with some over the top comic book movie/video game level carnage.
Clocking in at just over two hours, the film starts to lose some of its hard-earned momentum after one of the better action sequences. With a little tighter editing the story would have been more effective.
King Arthur mythology experts who expect the story to stay in line with established continuity are going to flip out. There’s no Lancelot, Guinevere, Morgana and even Merlin is M.I.A., but the story works without them. And the sequel all but writes itself with their addition.
Legend of the Sword wasn’t anything like I was expecting. Ritchie gives King Arthur the epic cinematic treatment it deserved. It’s not a fantasy game changer, but this is a clever and unique way to tell a familiar tale.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Warner Bros Pictures