Warner Bros. is desperate to establish a Marvel-style cinematic universe that actually works.
They’ve staked their next claim with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Directed by Guy Ritchie, the film (apparently part one of six) marries Ritchie’s frenetic editing and machine-gun dialogue with a visual style that looks like something Frank Frazetta would draw after playing Dark Souls games for a month straight. This movie is grim and dirty and completely bugfuck crazy, but also moves at a relentless pace. This is King Arthur as Conan the Barbarian, and honestly? It kinda works.
The film opens on an epic battle in which the evil sorcerer Mordred moves against Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) and his kingdom of Camelot. When Uther is betrayed and murdered by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law), Uther’s young son Arthur is sent downriver in a boat. He is rescued in Londinium and raised in a brothel, where we then see Arthur grow up, start his own little gang and turn into Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam in a fantastic little montage that is quintessential Guy Ritchie.
Vortigern arrests every young man in the kingdom in search of his nephew, the man who can pull the sword Excalibur from its stone and take back his crown. When Arthur finally appears, he’s rescued from the chopping block by Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and his fellow conspirators, who all live to see Vortigern brought to justice. Bedivere, Goosefat Bill (Aiden Gillan), and a young woman only known as The Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) train Arthur and groom him to wield Excalibur and reclaim the throne of Camelot.
Most of the story is structured like a heist film, as Arthur and his gang plan out how to sabotage the king and eventually assassinate him. We get several sequences in which characters explain the plan over footage of that plan being carried out in quick-cut montages. It’s very much in the style of Ritchie’s Snatch, and it keeps things moving from one oddball setpiece to the next. Because for every heist-planning sequence, the film delivers a strange action sequence in which Arthur must contend with giant rats or uses Excalibur to bullet-time his way through a battle with a hundred swordsmen.
If that makes the film sound like a hodgepodge of elements, well, it is.
The interplay between all the characters is so rich and well-drawn, that it often feels like a waste to drop Arthur in the middle of an overblown CGI battle with giant snakes or that guy from the cover of a Molly Hatchet album. The first act, in which we see Arthur befriend kung fu master George (Tom Wu) and recount his daily crimes with the local police, belongs in an entirely different film from the third act, in which Vortigern enlists the help of a tentacled blob monster lady to summon the forces of evil to murder Arthur in a swordfight.
But what makes all of this improbably hang together is the throughline of Arthur’s actions turning him into a legend among the people of England. Hunnam plays Arthur as a man who wants nothing to do with royalty or power, but is smart enough to know an opportunity when he sees one. When he wields Excalibur, seemingly miraculous things start happening, and that gets the people talking. He can lay waste to fifty men in a single swing and animals seem to do his bidding, but he’s also a man who can grease some wheels and get things done with the right team in place. (It’s not unlike 2014’s Hercules, where The Rock’s Greek hero employs hype-men to help sell his heroics to outsiders.) The film paints Arthur as a man who deserves to be king not because it’s his birthright, but because he lived under the bootheel of royalty. His best friends are common folk, not knights or lords, and his power as a ruler comes from being raised among the people. If this film warrants any of those five sequels, hopefully they don’t forget this aspect of the character.
Do we even want more King Arthur movies like this? I certainly might. Legend of the Sword leans further into grimdark territory than it should, but when this movie remembers to have a sense of humor about itself, it’s an absolute blast. If they can tip the scales back toward fun and adventure, I see no reason why this version of the Arthur legend couldn’t be a huge hit. Legend of the Sword is more of a curiosity than a bona fide success, but there’s plenty of wild stuff to chew on here. I, for one, welcome more adventures with King Arthur the Muscleface and his Biker Knights of the Round Table.Liked This? Share It!