Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Aidan Gillen, Michael McElhatton and Eric Bana
Studio: Warner Bros.
Running Time: 2 Hrs, 6 Mins
I’m often asked what I think makes a good summer movie. It’s no secret I have high expectations for my cinematic experiences and never shy away from criticizing a film’s shortcomings. So what makes a good summer, popcorn-enjoying movie? Regardless of a movie’s genre, it should respect me enough to get the job done without being stupid or patronizing. As long as there is genuine effort invested in the script then everything after that is gravy as long as I find it entertaining. It doesn’t have to win any Oscars (though that never hurts), but it shouldn’t be obvious that it takes the audience for granted (a sin about half of Hollywood’s current exports are guilty of).
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t perfect, but it’s a great a summer movie that checks a lot of those boxes.
Seeking both the crown and the enchanted sword Excalibur, Vortigern (Jude Law) betrays and murders his brother, King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). After witnessing both parents slain by the treacherous Vortigern, Uther’s infant son Arthur escapes to London, where he is raised in a brothel and is educated on the city’s gritty, unforgiving streets. With little memory of his previous life, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) becomes a quick-witted hoodlum who runs London’s streets with a rough code of justice and respect.
But when Excalibur mysteriously reveals itself for the first time since Uther’s death, events spiral violently out of control. Vortigern begins a desperate search for the surviving Arthur so he can kill the only thing standing between him and ultimate power. With his home destroyed and adopted family left in tatters, Arthur reluctantly joins his father’s surviving comrades and allies with a mysterious Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisby) in an attempt to end his uncle’s brutal rule.
Legend of the Sword is an impressive mix of high octant action, iconic “wow” shots, outstanding visual effects, snappy dialogue, a great soundtrack and even a few moments of genuine poignancy. It’s a popcorn flick that wins Peoples Choice Awards instead of Oscars. It’s definitely a different take on the Arthurian legend and it plays fast and loose with the mythology. But while it does take liberties with the lore, it also offers a fresh take on a well worn the story. While Arthurian purists will probably take issue with some of the changes or omissions, the story offers some new twists and turns that will surprise people who have seen this story on the big screen a dozen times before.
When Warner Bros. handed the directorial reins to Guy Ritchie, a lot of people were curious to see what sort of approach the film would take on such well worn story telling ground, particularly with the magical elements of the tale. While some versions have ignored the presence of magic entirely (and many thought Ritchie would too), Legend of the Sword dives into the fantasy elements head first and doesn’t look back. There are monsters, giant battle elephants, demonic knights and fireball throwing druids.
And that’s just the first ten minutes.
The action scenes are a joy to watch, whether they’re the bigger battle scenes or one-on-one fights. The special effects sell a lot of this movie and Ritchie, whose never done a movie with this level of visual effects, deserves a lot of credit for marrying the action sequences and FX so well. There are a handful of scenes where the action is immersive, inserting you smack dab in the middle of the chaos.
Charlie Hunnam is decent as Arthur, the fast-talking, street-wise racketeer turned reluctant hero. It is amusing to see a handful of Game of Thrones alumni show up and even David Beckham has a quick cameo. But as far as performances go, the real star is Jude Law as the villainous Vortigern. Law is deliciously evil as the power hungry tyrant who is willing to sacrifice virtually anything to satisfy his needs. But Law adds a layer of humanity and depth to the evil king instead of just portraying him as a Saturday morning cartoon villain.
Ritchie manages not only to bring his trademark witty dialogue to the film, but makes it feel right at home in Dark Ages England. After moving with a brisk and agile pace for the first half of the film, the plot stumbles a few times in the middle and the second act feels slightly bloated as a result. At over two hours in length, Legend is a little too long (though in hindsight, it’s tough to see what they could have cut or reduced without harming the overall effect of the movie).
Legend of the Sword would have also benefitted from a few strong female characters as well. There are women here but too often they’re relegated to victims or supporting roles. While some may argue that there’s little room for women of strength in medieval stories, you need look no further than Game of Thrones (particularly season six) to see how it’s done. A stronger female lead may have also helped achieve the romantic tension between Arthur and the Mage, which comes across as forced and disingenuous as a result of her lack of depth.
But despite its few warts, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an opportunity to have a great time at the movies. It’s pure, harmless popcorn fun that isn’t stupid or insulting. And isn’t that what summer movies are all about?