King Arthur Legend of the Sword Trailer - Charlie Hunnam

Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword shares its DNA with the big action movies of the late ‘90s/early 2000s. As insane as the proceedings become, there’s not a lick of shame or self-consciousness to be found anywhere; instead, there’s a rowdy energy and a penchant for some truly inspired visual spectacle. Granted, this heritage also comes with its own set of problems, and it’s the beats in which the movie adheres most closely to the template it’s cut from that are its weakest.

The movie excels when it leans fully into the strange and Ritchie-ian, and it falters when it has to hit the story beats required to make Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, showing off his lo-hi chops in this and Lost City of Z, respectively) into a king. It’s a matter of cut-and-dry plot versus the weirdness of Arthurian legends, not to mention the failure to update the worst parts of the generic action movie model, e.g., a grand total of four women die in order to advance the plot and the most important female character is essentially nameless, and there’s a nickname —“Kung-Fu George,” as bestowed upon Tom Wu’s character — that might have been passable if we actually got to see George do some kung-fu, but as it stands, feels a little too much like stereotyping.

That said, King Arthur isn’t quite like any other blockbuster currently playing. In part, this has to do with its director’s idiosyncrasies. Guy Ritchie has always had a distinctive touch, and the same frenetic, kinetic energy is present here, as well as the constant close-but-no-cigar point about class differences (rooting for the underdog, obviously). The sheer scale he’s working on is brand new, and it shows in the movie’s best sequences. King Arthur opens with Godzilla-sized elephants that are wondrous to behold, and just in case that wasn’t enough, there are giant snakes and octopus-witches, too. Rattling between them and his signature small-scale, close-quarters chases and duels is like riding a rollercoaster, with the sharpest turns coming thanks to everyone’s commitment to the bit, particularly Jude Law as Arthur’s evil uncle Vortigern.

The rest of the cast does as well as they can with what they get, with characters mostly defined by their nicknames (Aidan Gillen as Goosefat Bill, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Wet Stick, Neil Maskell as Back Lack, Geoff Bell as Mischief John — Djimon Hounsou also features as Sir Bedivere, though that name doesn’t fall into the same category of nonsense) and attitudes that generally seem to have been copped from Ritchie’s earlier work. Hunnam has more to do by virtue of being the main character, but to his credit, it’s not everyone who could pull off the dialogue without making it too serious or too self-aware. In fact, it’s the balance that he manages to strike that first suggests there’s something stranger at work than swords and sorcery.

As with any action movie, there’s a thrumming score to help move the action along, but King Arthur places an unusual premium on silence as well. The movie begins with silence that stretches to the point that it seems like an error, and the sound simply drops out in other scenes. It brings the proceedings to a halt, and demands attention and effort in a way that’s rare for a genre that generally encourages a bare minimum level of engagement. Again, part of this is due to Hunnam’s performance, whose refusal to go arch all the way nails the seriousness that that silence lends.

The hero’s journey also includes some atypical beats. We see Arthur faint clean away more than once due to the power flowing through the sword in the stone; while there’s a certain amount of faltering required in any superhero movie, this feels jarring, especially when a scene that ought to feel triumphant ends in a sudden blackout. For a good chunk of the movie, Arthur is useless at wielding Excalibur, though when he finally gets a handle on it, the resulting fight scenes play almost as refreshingly as the advent of 300.

Maybe this is all too kind, given the movie’s faults as previously stated, and the handful of plot points (generously speaking) that go unexplained. Its shortcomings only make its successes that much more frustrating. But still, the good outweighs the bad, especially when that good comes from risks that are rare in would-be franchises. (The movie ends with the suggestion of a continuation; I refuse to feel any shame in hoping, as unlikely as it may be, that a sequel gets made.) It can’t be denied that King Arthur is a tremendous amount of fun. Some details are truly wonderful, like the brief image of the Lady of the Lake that seems to combine fire with water, or the adjusted origin of the stone from which Arthur pulls Excalibur. The fact is that the source material the movie is pulling from is inherently strange, and the best parts of the movie are a direct result of embracing that instead of deferring to a safer, more familiar route. As Arthur cuts through swathes of his uncle’s black-clad soldiers, Excalibur glows blindingly brightly in his hands; similarly enough, if you can bear the bad patches, there’s something dazzlingly fun at the heart of it all.

/Film Rating: 7/10

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About the Author

Karen Han is a writer based in New York, via the midwest. She writes about film, TV, and Tintin, among other things.