King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) Review
NOT REALLY THE
“ONCE AND FUTURE KING” ARTHUR
Camelot, Excalibur, Mordred, Lancelot, Knights of the Roundtable, Merlin, and Arthur Pendragon are the primary staples to many in the various Arthurian legends of King Arthur. Deriving from the stories of British folklore, the story of King Arthur has been told and retold through a multitude of accounts, finding its origins within 12th century medieval England. With the passing of the tale, the story of Arthur has passed through the ages, reimagined and refined the British figure into a legend in both folklore and in literary. While many novels and books have written on the legend of King Arthur, none is more famous than version written by English novelist T.H. White titled “The Once and Future King”, which consist of the widely and well-known part of the Arthurian tale (i.e. The Sword in the Stone). Much like the literary world, Hollywood as a plethora of cinematic tales (made for the big and small screen) that represent the legend of King Arthur. This includes Disney’s 1963 animated feature The Sword in the Stone and 1998’s Quest for Camelot, the films 1995’s First Knight and 2004’s King Arthur, and 1998’s television movie Merlin amongst many others. Now, Warner Bros. Pictures and director Guy Ritchie, presents the newest iteration of the King Arthur story with the film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Does this movie shed new light on the Arthur Pendragon or is it a far-cry from the Arthurian legend many have come to love and cherish?
The balance between men and mages erupt with war, with King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) defends the kingdom of Camelot from evil with the help from his mystical sword Excalibur. Betrayed and murdered by his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), Uther manages to ferry his young son away from the battle and sealing away Excalibur’s power within earth and stone and out of Vortigern’s reach. Growing up into a life of poverty, service, and survival on the streets, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows into a defiant and strong-willed young man, finding camaraderie within fellow street rat commoners. When the waters suddenly retreat around Camelot, the sword Excalibur is exposed at the bottom of its depths, waiting for the next rightful king to claim its power and Camelot’s crown. Concerned over its sudden appearance, Vortigern, who has ruled over Camelot for many years, plans to kill the one who can pull sword from stone, which will make him the true wielder of the magical sword. However, when Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone, this trigger plans into action, with Arthur whisked off with a motley crew of soldiers and resistance fighters, including Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and Goosefat “Bill” Wilson (Aiden Gillen), trying to organize an attack on Vortigern’s iron grip over Camelot and to mold the street urchin Arthur into the champion king he was went to be.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
With my love of all things fantasy, the various Arthurian legends of King Arthur have definitely crossed my paths many, many times through my life. Like many my age, my first introduction to the story was through Disney’s animated film The Sword in the Stone, finding the tale of Arthur (commonly known as Wart) and his wacky adventures with the mystical Merlin a gateway into the more broader legend of King Arthur. From there, I’ve read, learned, and watched several other variations of the King Arthur, including several cartoon series (most notably with Disney’s Gargoyles) and films (First Knight and the TV movie Merlin). I still haven’t read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King novel yet, but I do plan to someday. Thus, by now, I’m somewhat well-versed in the Arthurian legend (and its many adaptations) to get the main gist of the legendary tale of Arthur Pendragon. Which brings me back to present in my reviewing of the movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. From its promotional marketing work, including trailers, TV spots, and internet buzz, I was interested in this movie, but had some pre-lingering doubts about seeing it. I couldn’t put my finger on the reasons why, but I just did. So, I purchased a ticket to go see the film and put those doubts either to rest or encourage them in viewpoints of the film. So, what did I think of it? Well, it’s not good. For all its pomp and visual representation, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword feels like a soulless razzle-dazzle fantasy romp that doesn’t engage with its audience nor within the legend it derives from. There’s some Arthurian notions weave into the tale, but this is one iteration that doesn’t do the legend justice.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is directed by Guy Ritchie, whose previous directorial credits include the films Snatch, Revolver, Sherlock Holmes (both the 2009 film and its 2011 sequel), and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. For starters, much like what I said in the opening paragraph, the tale of King Arthur has invoked a sense of wonderment and fantasy (an inherit hype of sorts), with many viewers expecting to see particular moments / characters from the Arthurian legend. To his credit, Ritchie certainly does that with his version of King Arthur, which is primarily setup as an origin story from the titular “Once and Future King”. Thus, peppering the movie with other Arthurian nuances are a welcomed one, including a grittier yet still fantasy-esque Camelot, Excalibur (and its iconic “sword in the stone” imagery), and the villainous roles of both Vortigern and Mordred and several others, brings a sense of comfort and familiarity to the proceedings of Legend of the Sword. To me, it was neat to have all of this and it was interesting to see how Ritchie would represent them in telling his version of King Arthur. What makes it more interesting is the fact that Ritchie’s world is fully realized, especially with establishing the humans and mages within its setting.
In terms of filmmaking, the movie is projected (and being toted) as a Hollywood blockbuster endeavor. With a production budget of $175 million, Legend of the Sword definitely looks like an expensive, big budgeted feature film. From the halls of Camelot to streets of Londinium to depths of Vortigern’s Mage Tower, the film looks like a world of slightly more grittier fantasy world than most, but still has its foot within reality. Everything else, from costume designs, set locales and layouts, to art direction, should be also highlighted in the film’s noteworthiness, further creating a realized world that I can honestly say that hasn’t been represented before in the various telling’s and adaptations of King Arthur. The film’s visuals also play a hand in that endeavor as well, with some swooping aerial fantasy shots of Camelot and its variety of creatures, including an opening battle sequences that showcases skyscraper size elephants that truly dwarf Tolkien’s Oliphaunts. There are moments that visual effects do dip a bit, but, for the most part, they’re on par (if not slightly better) than the industry standard of CGI.
Unfortunately, despites it large production budget and the references of the Arthurian legend, Legend of the Sword fails to impress beyond its CG visuals. For starters, Ritchie infuses his own style of filmmaking, with choppy edits and interweaving scenes with character voiceover work of individuals telling about what happened rather than just let scene happen explain itself. He’s used this tactic before (most notably with his two Sherlock Holmes films) and it’s somewhat amusing in Legend of the Sword…once. However, Ritchie overplays this filmmaking style, overindulging in this tactic several times, which becomes quite annoying. This goes back to the aged old expression “show, don’t tell” and something that just doesn’t add up, becoming more of a negative rather than a positive remark for the film. A prime example of this can be found in Arthur’s journey to Darklands. From what’s shown (via this show, don’t tell montage sequence), there’s plenty of material to take the film’s viewers on. A perilous journey of weird creatures, danger, and where Arthur ultimately accepts his destiny (moving from street urchin thug to hero), this sequence could’ve been something grand, a true highlight of the film’s first act ending (or beginning second act). However, this whole Darklands scene is only partially shown to us (the viewers) and would’ve been something great to fully see instead of having merely explained to us through its nonsensical fast-talk ramblings. Also, the film tries to be “cheeky” and “clever” with certain dialogue lines and in their delivery, which ultimately fall falt; more misses than hits.
In addition to that, Ritchie overindulges in the usage of slow-motion. While this tactic helps express certain scenes well, especially within the film’s action sequences, its notions is overused and plays out more like a cutscene from a modern video game rather than a part of a theatrical film. Yes, other movies have used this tactic and became well-received for this usage (The Matrix trilogy or 300), but Legend of the Sword is not one of them, wearing off the film technique with its excess usage. Then there’s the story being told in Legend of the Sword. As I said, the film’s narrative tells a somewhat origin tale of Arthur Pendragon (a fusion tale of a classic arc of hero storytelling and of today’s superhero films), the film’s screenplay, which was written by Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, and Lionel Wigram, fails to succeed in telling an engaging narrative of King Arthur. It has all the right elements to tell a proper one, but, with so much ground to cover and some bizarre moments, the script is riddled with confusion and unevenness, which causes the film to have some bad pacing, including a rushed ending. To make matters worse, there are some stupid decisions that some of the characters make in the movie. I won’t spoil them for you guys, but it’s pretty obvious that these moves are stupid, which ultimately comes from the film’s script and its storytelling format. Before I forget, they’re a couple of scenes and characters that make no-sense whatsoever and could’ve benefitted if the movie explained more on who or what they were all about (i.e. the Syrens that make a deal with Vortigern and the roles of several characters, which I’ll explain more on below). Lastly, the movie’s more modern style choice, Daniel Pemberto’s score combining pulse-pounding drums and a sort of “rock n roll” vibe, works in some areas, but feels “off-putting” for most of the film.
Of course, Legend of the Sword’s main hero and villain are the “big ticketed” stars of the feature, finding actors Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law playing the famous Arthurian roles of Arthur Pendragon and Vortigern. Hunnam, known for his roles in the TV show Sons of Anarchy as well as the films Pacific Rim and The Lost City of Z, does a fairly decent job in the role of Arthur. He has a very likeable charm about him and shows that off in the movie. However, while he’s capable of fulfilling the role of a “leading man” in a feature, there’s not much to the character that he brings “new” to the table of past iterations of King Arthur. Maybe a more youthful presence, but that’s about it. Thus, suffice to say, he’s an adequate portrayal of Arthur Pendragon, but that’s deal more with the film’s direction / screenplay more so than Hunnam’s acting ability. As for Jude Law, known for his roles in Enemy at the Gates, Spy, and Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes movies, plays the part of Vortigern, the film’s antagonist character. While Law’s performance Is good (neither under or over acted in the role), his character doesn’t breathe new life into role of Vortigern. To be truthfully, he’s just another common power-hungry enemy who only provides to work within the stereotypical role of a villainous ruler baddie. Thus, while Law is a good actor, his role of Vortigern is pretty “meh”.
Moving to the more secondary characters of the film, this collection sees plenty of recognizable actors / actress, but are ultimately flat and don’t move beyond what the film initial sets them out to be. Actor Djimon Hounsou, known for his roles in Gladiator, Blood Diamond, and The Island, plays the character of Sir Bedivere (a character known in the King Arthur legend). While Hounsou is a good actor, his portrayal of Bedivere is pretty “meh” and sort of acts like the stereotypical mentor to the hero of a fantasy story. Then there’s actress Astrid Bergès-Frisbey who plays the mysterious female character known as “The Mage”. Known for her roles in Angels of Sex, I Origins, and Pirate of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Bergès-Frisbey’s role in Legend of the Sword sort replace the character of Merlin (who is seeing very briefly and sends her to aid Arthur), but this switch feels odd in the story. While she sort brings the “female presence” to Arthur’s band of men, her roles as “The Mage”, much like Hounsou, is regulated to being a stock fantasy character (i.e. somewhat of a Merlin mentor-esque figure). Why couldn’t they just used the character of Merlin? Actress Annabelle Wallis, known for her roles in The Tudors, Peaky Blinders, and in the upcoming movie remake of The Mummy, plays the character of Maggie and is woefully underutilized; used only as a plot device for one particular scene and nothing after that. In truth, actor Eric Bana, known for his roles in Munich, Troy, and The Time Traveler’s Wife, who plays Uther Pendragon in the movie shines better (and even gets more screen-time) than Wallis’s Maggie. Also, just for a fun fact of sorts, actress Poppy Delevingne, older sister to Cara Delevingne, plays Uther’s wife Igraine. Lastly, of these characters, Game of Thrones stars Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger) and Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton) play their parts in the movie, with Gillen as Goosefat “Bill” Wilson (one of Arthur’s comrades) and McElhatton as Jack’s Eye (a captain of some sorts within Vortigern’s soldiers). While their inclusion in the film is nice (I do like both actors), their characters in Legend of the Sword aren’t really that great in comparison to their GoT characters.
Lastly, they’re a host of other characters in the movie, some of which who become Knights of the Roundtable in Arthurian lore (i.e. Percival and Tristian), but this plethora of minor / supporting characters are, much like the majority of the cast, are underwhelming and a total waste of the acting talents of the actors behind their respective characters. This includes Neil Maskell, Freddie Fox, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Arthur gang / brothers-in-arms comrades Back Lack, Rubio, and Wet Stick as well as actor as Tom Wu, who plays Arthur Asian kung fu brawler comrade / mentor George. Trust me, I couldn’t catch up on “who was who” for most of the movie and some of the characters I never learned their names until the very end. For the most part (in terms to all), none of the characters, both major and minor, really don’t make a lasting impression for us (the viewers) to fully care about. Ultimately, Legend of the Sword just simply overstuffs its cast with some unnecessary / underwhelm side characters. Also, not a negative point but a funny one, there is a cameo appearance, of which I was the only one that laughed when I saw it, of former British soccer player David Beckham, playing the character of Trigger, one of Vortigern’s men.
The story of King Arthur returns to the big screen in the film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Director Guy Ritchie’s newest film definitely takes his own spin on the legend of Arthur Pendragon, with the film producing some interesting elements of the classic tale, fantasy nuances, and Ritchie’s style of filmmaking. However, with a choppy editing, weird directions (“show, don’t tell”), uneven pacing, and plethora of wasted acting talents on uninteresting characters, the film never reaches its lofty goals: blundering loudly threw its efforts rather than achieving cinematic notoriety. Personally, this movie was bad. As I said before, I had some lingering doubts about this movie and (after viewing) those doubtful thoughts were just reconfirmed. There are some fun elements to the film, but the negatives outweigh the positives on this particular movie. Unless you’re a diehard fan of Ritchie’s films or of actor Charlie Hunnam, I would say this movie is definitely a “skip it” in my recommendations (just wait for it to come out on TV next year). I do applaud the film for reimaging of King Arthur tale, but I just wish that Legend of the Sword was a better movie. As it stands, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a big budgeted, yet unmemorable adaptations of the Arthurian legend.
2.5 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: May 12th, 2017
Reviewed On: May 12th, 2017
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a 126 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language