Just when you think you’ve seen and heard every iteration of the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur, comes a new take and telling of the myth, one that prefers its heroes dirty, its villains seething and its action ridiculously over the top. There are elements in King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword that really work, and others that seem overcooked and somewhere sitting in the middle is a film that had the potential to do something really unique and fun but doesn’t quite hit all the marks.
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) an orphan raised in a brothel finds out through forced circumstance that he’s the true king by birthright after pulling the magical sword Excalibur from its stony hold. His villainous uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), who murdered Arthur’s father, is bent on keeping the throne for himself and so must kill Arthur and his band of rebellious friends to ensure he retains power. Despite Arthur’s initial resistance to his destiny he comes to realise that Vortigern’s twisted desire for power will result in more death and destruction and so he must face his demons and take his true place as king by wielding the power of Excalibur.
Director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels, Sherlock Holmes) along with screenwriters Joby Harold (Awake) and Lionel Wigram (The Man From U.N.C.L.E) have crafted a film that definitely has its high and low points. The film opens with a surprising action and fantasy heavy war sequence involving enormous elephants, the dark and evil mage Mordred (Rob Knighton) and Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) using the magical Excalibur to defeat Mordred from destroying Camelot. This opening salvo in itself is fairly excessive and all before the opening credits, so by the time you reach the closing credits, you’ve been bombarded by several other high octane fights and you’re feeling weary. So even though these epic battles with thousands of CGI soldiers look grandiose it feels a little spent by the end.
Hunnam is still a little rusty in the convincing dramatic acting department but where he gets to shine here is playing a sassy, cocky larrikin that is probably the farthest from the “King Arthur” character we’ve seen in depictions past. This is an Arthur who has been raised in a brothel, fought in back alleys, swindling his way through life, and now being forced to acknowledge his kingly birthright despite not having a desire for it. Also it doesn’t hurt that the guy is a physical machine giving his stunt doubles a run for their money and he looks the part waving the sword around or taking his shirt off gratuitously.
While Law gets to crack out my favourite type of Jude Law, the evil kind and he clearly revels in it. So where Hunnam lacks a little in the drama, it’s well made up for by his costar who trots out some really great monologues about power, drive and destiny. And when he’s not talking, he’s lounging on the throne, throwing shade at his generals and saying nothing and just generally looking pissed off about the entire situation of having his nephew potentially overthrow him.
The cast of supporting characters are diverse from Djimon Hounsou, to Eric Bana, to Aiden Gillen to Tom Wu and Astrid Berges-Frisbey. Bana gets some brief onscreen time as Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father and wielder of Excalibur and all-round BAMF. Hounsou as Bedivere, one of Uther’s trusted knights who after Vortigern’s takeover flees Camelot to rally the rebels and provide exposition for Arthur. Gillen plays the oddly named Goosefat Bill, another of the rebels working with Bedivere. While Berges-Frisbey plays the mysterious Mage that studied under Merlin and uses her magical abilities to fill in some of the story plotholes. These satellite characters are merely here to assist Arthur on his quest so they’re given very little to no backstory or development and surprisingly the film doesn’t seem to feel like it’s lacking because of it.
Ritchie of course does inject his flavour to this film, the character of Arthur is very laddish and if you can believe there are even elements of a “heist” like scenario with the crew having to snatch back Excalibur in order to defeat Vortigern. Not to mention his trademark use of the character narrating a scene whilst the characters mime the dialogue and fast jump cuts backward or forward in time. And some may have issues with the fact it’s lacking a little in female characters, the film is probably better served ditching any romantic subplots for our Arthur. Another quintessential Ritchie stamp is the soundtrack and scoring. Despite Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” featuring in the trailer it doesn’t make an appearance in the final cut of the film which is a shame. However the music and scoring by Daniel Pemberton is equally thunderous and bombastic and quirky and marries well with visuals on screen.
What is a little disappointing is that the concept and characteristics of both Arthur and Vortigern are not nearly fleshed out enough. We’re given a rushed montage to show us Arthur growing up from orphan boy to toughened muscle man protecting his ladies and the brothel. Whilst Vortigern we’re only shown a little about his involvement with Mordred and the sacrifices he made in order to acquire the throne. With both of our leads lacking that little bit extra depth, we’re not really invested in them or their plight. And apparently Ritchie’s original uncut version was much longer, so with this clocking in at a little over 2 hours, it feels like they could have cut some of the fight scenes down in order to build out their characters a little more. Also the tonal shifts in this film are a little uneven, with serious dark foreboding one minute and then shenanigans and capers the next.
King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword has a unique and fun character in Hunnam’s portrayal of Arthur. It also has an interesting concept for Arthur’s origin story and Ritchie manages to inject some of his own distinct flavour into the project. But the film is also heavily weighed down by overly long fight sequences and characters with not nearly enough emotional depth and using fantasy and magic as a plotpoint scapegoat.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 126 minutes
King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is screening in Australian cinemas from 18 May 2017 through Roadshow Films and Warner Bros Pictures