Do you think Charlie Hunnam is hot? Are you in need of some quasi-medieval high fantasy during the hiatus of Game of Thrones? Do you obtain mild pleasure from watching street lads get sassy with rich men? Have you been meaning to check in on the location of Jude Law’s hairline? Does sorcery seem like more fun than science? Have you been worried about that giant snake finding work after Harry Potter? Does Trump have you fantasizing about a different sort of leader, maybe a sexy, down-to-earth, warrior king wearing leather pants?
If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, then Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword might just be the movie for you. The story of King Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table has been told and retold countless times, but this version takes place before much of what we’re familiar with, and shares more with A Knight’s Tale than a fairy tale.
After years of peace, war has broken out between man and mage, and the kingdom of Camelot risks being destroyed. The mages (magicians) are led by the powerful and particularly evil sorcerer Mordred, who is hellbent on world domination and human subjugation. Luckily, the armies of men are led by King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who is also the owner of Excalibur, a sword with supernatural powers that makes whoever wields it a nearly unbeatable force in battle. Thanks largely to this weapon, Uther and his men are able to defeat Mordred and his dark magic. But if Lion King taught us anything, it’s that peace never lasts long when there’s a jealous brother in the picture, and there is: Vortigern, a simpering, snobbish, amoral Jude Law. Once trained by mages himself, he now has a secret alliance with the dark powers beneath the castle and wants to finish what the mages started. Uther has just enough time to smuggle his small son Arthur into a boat and float him off to safety before Vortigern stages a coup and murders him and his wife.
And so the world young Arthur grows up in is not one of castles and kings, but of pickpockets, street fighters, and prostitutes. He lands in an urban settlement called “Londinium,” and is raised in a brothel, where in addition to street smarts and a cheeky sense of humor, he develops a heart for underdogs. The adult Arthur (played by Charlie Hunnam) remembers nothing of his past life, save for some shadowy nightmares of a hooded sorcerer and vague images of his father (these dreams conveniently result in night sweats, forcing our very muscled hero to remove his pesky tunic). Meanwhile, Vortigern has taken over Camelot, built a very large tower, and continues to hone his evil powers. Now that his murdered brother’s once loyal knights have been scattered and driven into hiding, the only thing that threatens his reign are whispers that Arthur, the true heir (and thus a potential wielder of Excalibur) is still alive. Though the title and trailer reveal much of what comes after, there are still some pleasant surprises in this fun but mostly unoriginal adaptation.
Charlie Hunnam, known for Sons of Anarchy, Pacific Rim, and most recently The Lost City of Z, is responsible for much of what works in King Arthur. He leads both his character’s comrades and his supporting cast with an indefatigable swagger that’s consistently endearing and amusing. There’s an ease to Hunnam’s carriage and delivery, which helps smooth out instances of tonal discordance and sells the film’s more ridiculous moments. What’s more, he possesses a scrappy physicality that had me believing he could hold his own in a real street fight, sans choreography and stuntmen. Unlike past iterations, his Arthur is not so much tortured by his destiny as he is annoyed with it. His decision to return to Camelot and challenge his uncle’s claim to the throne has less to do with him nobly filling his role as the “chosen one,” and more to do with his dislike of the bullying establishment.
Hunnam’s unhurried, almost casual performance pairs surprisingly well with director Guy Ritchie’s signature percussive-pacing. He’s a master at shooting time-bending action sequences, which he demonstrates in a number of hand-to-hand combat scenes. (A particularly thrilling one has a crew of street fighters trapped inside a walled arena, bracing themselves and their bare fists for the armed soldiers who have them surrounded.) Ritchie, also known for his quick cuts, effectively uses this editing technique as a narrative tool, condensing plot or character development into a single montage without skimping on detail.
For this reason, the strongest parts of the film are the scenes between Arthur and his newfound crew, an unconventional group made up of his childhood friends, his father’s former knights, and a surly and mysterious mage. Ritchie has the ability to thoroughly yet economically establish not only their group chemistry, but their individual idiosyncrasies. Watching characters called “Wet Stick,” “Back Lack,” and “Goosefat Bill” argue about who can shoot the farthest feels less like watching medieval knights and more like watching 21st-century Cockney gangsters from one of Ritchie’s other films. Their blue-collar rapport is an interesting reimagining of the group dynamics of the legendary Knights of the Round Table.
Unfortunately, though Ritchie thrives at filming contained action sequences and rhythmic banter, he struggles to manage the epic special effects and scope of a fantasy movie. There are too many CG fires/explosions/giant creatures, which add little to the story and disrupt his momentum. Whole sections look like they’re spliced from 300, Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones. It’s not that these moments are out of place aesthetically, but that they’re humorless and unoriginal compared to the rest of the material. The inclusion of too many fantasy elements (an evil tower, a blood sacrifice, mermaids, a magical pool, the Lady of the Lake)—presumably tossed into the mix to help explain the supernatural rules of this world—confuses more than illuminates. And besides, neither the audience nor Arthur cares how Excalibur works, so long as it does.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is an origin story inspired by a classic tale and reimagined with a modern attitude. When it falters (and it does, frequently) it’s because it won’t accept its true identity. Just as Hunnam’s Arthur is no aristocratic, duty-driven king, Ritchie’s style is no lugubrious, “war is hell” battle sequence, nor sweeping landscape panorama. When he steps out of his comfort zone, it shows. Still, the film maintains momentum from start to finish, and demonstrates a lot of potential for future installments. (The ending screams not only “Sequel!” but “Franchise!”) I’d be curious to see Ritchie’s interpretation of Guinevere, Merlin, or Lancelot, and think he would excel at sending Arthur and his ragtag knights on quests both legendary and absurd. Some versions of the Arthurian legend claim that the famous king will return to his country in her hour of greatest need; what they didn’t predict is that he would return again, and again, and again.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.