Main cast: Charlie Hunnam (Arthur), Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey (The Mage), Djimon Hounsou (Bedivere), Aidan Gillen (Goosefat Bill Wilson), Craig McGinlay (Percival), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Tristan), Neil Maskell (Backlack), Tom Wu (George), Freddie Fox (Rubio), Mikael Persbrandt (Kjartan), Annabelle Wallis (Maggie), David Beckham (Trigger), Michael McElhatton (Jack’s Eye), Jude Law (Vortigern), and Eric Bana (Uther Pendragon)
Director: Guy Ritchie
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword resembles the stories around King Arthur only in that the characters share the same names as the folks in those stories. This one has some magic, yes, but it’s all about swagger. Arthur wears a pimp coat, modified to make it look less Gucci and more “sword and sorcery cyberpunk”, as he trashes King Vortigern in the climax, the one-liners are anachronistic and full of too-cool-for-school attitude, and the script all screams too edgy for you and me. Clearly, Guy Ritchie, who co-produced the movie and co-wrote the script in addition to directing it, is still trying way too hard to compensate for his distant past career derailment as Mr Madonna and directing his ex-missus in what is arguably one of the worst films in modern civilization.
Mages and humans lived peacefully… until Mordred seized power and started conquering the rest of the world with his army of colossal red-eyed elephants. Fortunately, Uther Pendragon has Excalibur, then +9,000 sword that can do everything and anything, and offs Mordred in a one-hit kill just like that final boss that wipes out an entire raid party with a sneeze. Alas, his villainous brother Vortigern creates a ruckus, kills Uther and his wife, and yet somehow manages to lose both Excalibur and baby Arthur. Idiot.
Arthur is found and raised by some ladies in a brothel, and he grows up to become a hard-bodied guy who knows kung-fu thanks to George who runs a school in the neighborhood. Did I mention that this movie is set in a time when London is called Londinium, and yet the country is referred to as England about 500 years too early? Having a Chinese guy teach kung-fu in a neighborhood with an eye-rolling significant population of black people who mingle easily with the white folks and hold positions of power – well, all that is just about right. Anyway, Arthur and his friends Tristan and Percival soon become benevolent thug bosses in town, collecting money from icky Vikings and other lowlifes that bully the weak, until one day when they run afoul of the law by beating up some Vikings that are under Vortigern’s protection.
Meanwhile, Vortigern is dismayed when Excalibur suddenly reappears, embedded in the calcified stone body of Uther, in front of his palace too even as his plan of building the tallest evil mage tower ever is near completion. You see, when his erection reaches the sky or something like that, he’d have enough power to become the new Mordred, and now fate or whatever has conspired to bring back Excalibur to thwart his plans. Only the direct heir of Uther Pendragon can pull out the sword from the stone, so it’s probably a good thing that the heir is a hot-bodied dude who likes to beat up people instead of, say, a morbidly obese kid with type 2 diabetes. Don’t ask me why the sword doesn’t appear in Arthur’s bedroom if these destiny people want him to have it that badly. Where’s the fun in that?
So, Vortigern is now rounding up all the guys that should be around the heir’s age and asks David Beckham to supervise as these kids have to try pulling out the sword. Arthur ends up as one of these guys, and what do you know, he manages to rise to the occasion. Our cunning villain has been waiting for this chance, however, and he has Arthur’s friends and companions held hostage to ensure that Arthur cooperates as our villain stages a public execution for him. Fortunately, the rebels led by Belvidere and Goosefat Bill Wilson, along with a mysterious lady mage sent by Merlin to help Arthur realize his abilities to master his sword (not dirty!), come to his rescue.
Now, if you are expecting plenty of derring do and ass kicking by Arthur… well, yes, there is plenty of derring do, but Arthur spends the bulk of the movie whining that he doesn’t want the responsibility that comes with Excalibur. His reaction after several people die or end up captured in order to protect him is to throw Excalibur away – and this is a penultimate scene late in the movie – so I hope you have a pretty good tolerance for perfectly capable, hard-bodied guys who prefer to whine and mope even as others risk their asses to drag his ass to the finish line.
Fortunately, that character is pretty tolerable despite being a whiny brat, because Charlie Hunnam approaches his role with just the right amount of swagger. His lines are often cheesy and try hard, but his delivery of those lines are just right – Arthur really comes off as a well-meaning kid who just happens to be out of his depths sometimes, and this makes him a far more bearable character than he would otherwise be. Mr Hunnam injects the right amount of playfulness and aplomb in his role without becoming too over the top, so much so that when he adopts a WWE pimp stance now and then, it feels just in character for Arthur instead of the movie just trying too hard to be edgy and cool. Furthermore, and I am saying this as someone who has never found Mr Hunnam attractive, the actor is really easy on the eyes when he sports that kind of facial hair.
As for the rest of the film, well, the secondary cast is okay. They are all barely developed, but some of them, such as Belvidere, Goosefat Bill, and Blacklack, have memorable fun traits and attitude to make them memorable. Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey doesn’t have much to do here, but it’s refreshing to see a main female character that doesn’t end up being a love interest. She’s here to do her thing, and that’s what she will do, thanks very much. Also, the story has some interesting elements that come together very well, and as a result, this is a fast-paced action-packed movie that can deliver the goods. Vortigern is deliciously nasty and evil, while Eric Bana is just being Eric Bana, not that this is a bad thing at all as he’s pretty and is good at playing the stoic, noble authority figure.
At the same time, though, the movie has plenty of groan-inducing moments, especially its transparent use of women and children as plot devices to force our good guys to be in a position of weakness. Indeed, the whole drama in the end would have gone better for Arthur and friends if they had been sensible and just kept the brats at home. I also wish that the whole “Arthur needs a bitch slap to get his act together” arc has been shorter too – it is hard to sympathize with him when he keeps at it after people died just to haul his ass to safety. Also, the whole “I finally discovered my powers… after a prep talk from my dead dad!” thing is just played out – they could have found a better device for Arthur’s epiphany, surely.
Oh, and the editing crew needs to be tarred and feathered with extreme prejudice. This movie is full of unnecessary, seizure-inducing ADHD-style quick cuts back and forth, so much so that sometimes it is very hard to figure out what is happening in a frantically-paced scene. Such scenes tend to be poorly lit too, so good luck figuring them out.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is at the end of the day a fun kind of average. It has its fun moments just as it has its share of dud ones, putting this one squarely in the so-so territory. Charlie Hunnam carries much of this movie on his shoulders, though, and I won’t lie: it’d be nice to see him in a sequel, preferably with him wearing little as much and as often as possible.