Oh, Guy Ritchie. Here I was fully prepared to lament the lack of a The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sequel (but seriously get on that please, will you?) and now I’m clamoring for a King Arthur one instead. Yes, Ritchie is back with all his signature flair, offering his own take on Arthurian legend that is a satisfying but most importantly fun film that’s perhaps early enough in the summer blockbuster season to gain some traction and become a hit.
The legend you know, but bear with me here. The film opens with the last standing stronghold of man, Camelot (with not a single drunken Jackie waltzing around in sight). Although man and mages, those with magical ability, have peacefully co-existed for some time, war has broken out and man isn’t faring too well. Uther (Eric Bana), King of Camelot, is watching his kingdom get destroyed by Mordred (Rob Knighton), a dark mage who seems unstoppable, wielding giant possessed elephants who are making mincemeat out of everyone, toppling the stone fortress piece by piece. But Uther has a secret weapon, Excalibur, a sword given to him by Merlin, which holds the power to defeat the darkness at hand. Handing the crown to his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), who urges him to simply surrender, Uther rushes out to the battle, finding his way to Mordred, who he beheads with the help of his sword, which is engraved with runes and comes to life, glows with a strange power.
With Mordred gone it seems Camelot is safe, except Vortigern is a slimy piece of shit who stages a coup and takes over the kingdom, killing his wife in the process. Uther urges his wife to take Arthur and leave, but she’s killed too and as Arthur escapes he sees his father taken down by a hulking but kinda badass demon who looks as if Loki and Ghost Rider had a love child. From here, the young Arthur drifts until he’s found at a port in Londonium, where he is taken in and raised in a brothel. Of course, the legend of the Born King persists until Arthur is fully grown into Charlie Hunnam’s impeccable abs and discovered by the King’s men, who make every male of a certain age try their luck at pulling out the sword in the stone, as only Uther’s heir would be able to wield Excalibur. (I won’t spoil it but keep your eyes peeled for a fun cameo at this point) So, Arthur does and guess what?
Vortigern has been granted a lot of power as a result of a personal sacrifice on his part, one made to three cthulu-like sirens, who tell him that there must be balance, hence Arthur’s unexpected return. If Vortigern wants Excalibur he must kill Arthur, plain and simple. But Arthur has some friends on his side, a band of misfits loyal to his dead father who have employed the help of a Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and who are determined to help Arthur manifest the powers in Excalibur to take Vortigern down and take back Camelot.
To his credit, Ritchie, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram (based on a story by Harold and David Dobkin), is able to inject fresh life in a familiar story by utilizing some of his trademarks - quick cuts, flashbacks and slow-motion action - and it pays off. Early on, when Arthur is questioned by one of the king’s men, Jack’s Eye (Michael McElhatton), the story told by Arthur and his friends feels reminiscent of Snatch, with the flashbacks being interrupted by questions and the story being rewound and fast forwarded humorously until it all makes sense. Likewise, when Arthur finally does start swinging Excalibur, the impact is perhaps more profound because the shots are slowed down, giving us a sense of how Arthur is able to make mincemeat of his enemies, while also showing us just how damn powerful the sword really is. And this serves not only as a guide to how good will triumph over evil, but also how power can corrupt. Seeing Excalibur in action is a cautionary tale, as anyone who has read Le Morte d’Arthur knows.
In addition to Ritchie’s razzle-dazzle style, the stellar cast are what ultimately sell the film. Jude Law is so deliciously bad as Vortigern that it’s hard to root against him. To his credit, Hunnam, who perhaps falters as a leading man in The Lost City of Z, feels right at home in Ritchie’s cinematic oeuvre, and in turn he is the perfect Arthur, embodying the cocksure swagger of a street-savvy orphan and the uncertainty of a man still haunted by the death of his parents. But beyond this there are also Arthur’s men, the future Knights of the Round Table, which include Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillen, Craig McGinlay, Tom Wu, and Kingsley Ben-Adir. As this is a fictional tale of an England infused with magic, it’s a delight to see that Ritchie didn’t employ the “historically Britain was white” bullshit and gave us a diverse Knights of the Round Table.
But while we can praise King Arthur for its diversity, the women don’t fare too well as we’ve discussed earlier this week. The ladies are sacrifices or pawns to lure Arthur out of hiding. It’s true, Arthur would have gotten nowhere without The Mage and The Lady in the Lake, but ultimately the triumph is his. Should this prove to birth more films, which I would gladly watch, it would be interesting to see Ritchie dig into the powerful women in Arthurian legend. If he can give us a re-imagined Arthur who grew up street fighting, it would be nice to strip these women of the saint-slut tropes and the sirens luring men to their damnation bullshit and instead have crafty women who expose and exploit the weaknesses of men, but I certainly won’t hold my breath here.
All in all, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword proves a fun and kick-ass time at the movies, one where two hours flies because the story and the action are engrossing. King Arthur is Sherlock Holmes meets Snatch in the best way possible. Ignore the mixed reviews and give it a chance, I’m definitely glad I did.