Review: “King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword”
Charlie Hunnam makes one sexy King Arthur and I also have a love affair with the King Arthur legend, reading just about every variation and derivation I could get my hands on from a young age. These are the prime motivators to my wanting to see “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” So when I saw they were re-making a movie about this story, the first question I had to ask was, what new twist are they going to bring to audiences and the second question, is it going to work within the framework of the original legend? My verdict: The concept is original and brought a fresh look to the story while the execution had a few flaws.
Guy Ritchie as the director and one of the writers plays with the traditional story, bringing to life a King Arthur raised in London in a brothel, not remembering his origin after his uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) usurps his brother Uther’s (Eric Bana) throne. Arthur is dynamic and a leader, running the back streets of London with his gang of thieves and strongmen, keeping the area safe for the likes of the women who raised him and the families of his men.
Meanwhile, Vortigern is accruing magical power but is fearful of the potential for his nephew to return. In order to draw him out, he orders all young men of a certain age to attempt to pull Excalibur from the stone which is centered in the bay below his castle. Arthur attempts evasion but eventually is brought to the stone, where he promptly draws the sword from the stone. Once he is confronted with the power of the sword, Arthur is forced to confront his demons and master the sword. He must rely on a Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), two knights Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Bill (Aiden Gillen) and his ragtag team of street miscreants to unite the kingdom to defeat the evil tyrant Vortigern.
As we all know, this legend has been brought to the big screen many times. Finding a new voice and a new way to tell the tale is a challenge. For the most part, the writers and the director succeeded in doing so. The story is unique, having Arthur raised among the common people rather than as a lord. This idea immediately gives him a connection to his people and to the audience. They’ve also made Uther a good guy. The beginning of the movie begins with Uther fighting an evil mage and defeating him. After the battle, he fights to prevent his people taking their fear of magic out on the rest of the mages that live among them. Vortigern as Uther’s brother, capitalizes on that fear and uses it to kill his brother. Having the pair be brothers brings a new element to the story (most legends have Vortigern as contemporary of Uther’s father). By having them as brothers, it allows the writers to have him become the villain of the story, which was extremely effective. It is also important to mention that within the new story the writers have woven both Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, both integral pieces of previous iterations, into the new tale. How and where they are included, I’ll leave to the viewers to discover but it was gratifying that core elements of the legend of Arthur have been kept in this new version.
One of the key factors in a King Arthur movie is how magnetic Arthur is and Charlie Hunnam is very charismatic in this role. It is not just his sex appeal. He plays the part with unwavering focus. He is able to play to the humorous elements in the script as well as the more serious scenes. And he absolutely is fantastic in the action sequences battling giant rats or the demons of his past. He elevates the movie from okay to really entertaining with his realistic performance.
Jude Law as Vortigern is the perfect foil for Charlie Hunnam. He is dark to Arthur’s light, both conflicted and power hungry, willing to sacrifice all he loves in order to gain what he desires, power and influence. Jude Law is able to capture those emotions perfectly; bringing nuance in his physical performance that builds upon the dialogue he is given. There is very little doubt in my mind that both his performance and Charlie Hunnam’s, the interactions between the two are what created such an entertaining movie.
While the acting of both the main characters is incredible, the acting of some of the secondary characters is equally good. Djimon Houson is subtly funny as Bedivere and I especially liked seeing Aiden Gillen as a master archer. Astrid Berges-Frisbey does a believable performance as the Mage helping Arthur, powerful and wise. While we don’t get much detail on her character, the performance helps fill in some of the gaps. Most of all the diverse group of characters from the streets of London, especially Neil Maskell as Back Lack and his son Blue played by Blue Landau are both enjoyable and add an element of realism to the story and the performances.
Action drives this movie, the pace fast and keeps the story from dragging. The action sequences with Excalibur are well crafted, highlighting magical effects and having the added bonus of getting to see Charlie Hunnam show off his fighting skills. In addition to the normal fight sequences, we also are treated to a world of magic that is well built with effects that highlight the Lady of the Lake and create new creatures, octopus-like Syrens as well as giant snakes and rats that are reminiscent of The Princess Bride. The effects of the Mage helping Arthur are incredible; her abilities to control animals well conveyed and left me wanting to see more of the character.
What lacks in the story is some of the execution and a few key details of the legend of King Arthur. While I loved the shakeup on the legend, there was one part that bothered me. The mage that Uther fights at the beginning of the film is Mordred. Not only is this terribly out of order for the Legend of King Arthur but additionally, from a story craft point of view, it is a waste using the iconic conflicted villain of Arthurian lore in what is essentially a one off battle at the beginning of the movie. He is thrown away and wasted instead of being held back and used in case of sequels. In addition, the beginning of the film included effects that had me shaking my head and wondering if the movie would be worth my time as Mordred brings in giant elephants and pyramids, none of which are native to England. Fortunately, the great writing later on saved the story but this was not the best beginning for the film.
One of the other effects that didn’t work goes back to the director. Guy Ritchie is popular for both his heist movies and Sherlock Holmes. He brings that same style to this film, adding in the quick pacing and ability to condense the story as needed to keep the action flowing. These worked well but he added in an effect where the characters are running to get away from the king’s guard. In the sequence, the camera moves from character to character like a video game. Not only does this distract from the story and pull you out of the scene but it really started to give me a headache. In addition, one of the scenes with the sword goes over the top with light effects that essentially blinded me, again pulling me out of the story.
The pacing is also frenetic at times, giving the viewers plenty of action but not a lot of development of the secondary characters. I didn’t really learn much about the Mage and why she was helping. I don’t learn very much about Bedivere or Bill despite liking their time on screen. One of the actors in the film was Tom Wu, who is an incredible actor. His part was small and the humor well done but I felt his martial arts skills were wasted and we got so little time with the character that there was very little reason to have him in the film other than for the name. I also wanted more about the Dark Lands that are introduced in the story but are left mostly undeveloped.
This is a bold, new twist on the King Arthur legend, though. There are solid special effects with an incredible soundtrack. The movie is filmed on location in England and Scotland, giving us some beautiful scenery. The action scenes are entertaining and the development of the Mages interesting. But what makes this movie is the acting of Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law. Both their performances were incredible and kept me entertained. And despite some of the execution, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Rating: 4 stars for acting, 3.5 for special effects and writing