King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Jacob Richardson | 17/05/2017
Fumbling, muddled, and simultaneously both the most basic plot and inexplicably complicated one seen in recent times, King Arthur: Legend of The Sword is a mess; albeit, an incredibly fun and stylish one.
After Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is viciously murdered by his power-hungry brother Vortigen (Jude Law), his son Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is raised away from the family’s seat of power (Camelot), instead growing up in a brothel in Londinium. In a series of cuts we watch him grow into the GQ-fur bestraddled, super-cut young underground mobster; protecting his brothel-working patrons and fleecing people to add to his stores of gold.
When the river around Vortigen’s castle recedes to reveal Excalibur cemented in stone, he begins a search of the kingdom to find the rightful King - the only one who can pull the stone from the sword. Needless to say, young Arthur wrenches it from the stone, and after a brief stint in captivity, escapes into the waiting arms of a mix-matched crew of future Knights, a snake-controlling Mage and old Londinium underground compatriots. Thus commences their journey to take back the throne from Arthur’s evil uncle.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an insane movie. Plot wise, it is an irredeemable mess. It is rare to see such a basic foundation story - son of a slain King, finds a magic sword to defeat his usurper uncle - that is infused with so many irrepressibly confounded plot lines. There are Mages (medieval wizards), with one in particular played by the unnamed, somewhat muted, almost lone female character Astrid Berges-FIndlay, and their powers are never really explained, or important. The evil Mordred, and his relationship to Vortigen, is barely examined. There’s no explanation of how Vortigen discovered his ability to gain power, or how this strange “shadow realm” works. For some reason, giant towers are necessary for attaining more power, but this is also lazily described.
The movie also jumps. Correctly assuming that the audience won’t really care about why or when or where things are happening in the jumbled mess of a plot, Ritchie jumps from scene to scene with no scale of time or geography. The water recedes and reveals the sword for some reason. To Ritchie, it isn’t important why. Just like he doesn’t care to identify why Vortigen has to go to Londinium, or how he finds out that someone is betraying him. His storytelling is lazy; built on moments of ‘cool’ rather than any cohesive tale. There is no risk, no sense of danger, because anything can happen. After all, everything in this movie seems impossible; whether it is giant elephants being created from cliff faces, swords being tossed in mid air and flipping perfectly before impaling someone in the neck, or David Beckham playing a disfigured guard of the sword in the stone.
Beckham will go down in history for this performance. Given such a prominent role, as the fast-talking antagonist of the King’s Men guarding the sword, he struggles his way through four or five lines of dialogue so painfully that it detracts from Arthur’s ‘hero’ moment immediately afterward. Combined with Berges-FIndlay’s Mage, who could just as easily be playing restaurant-goer #5 ordering a glass of water with the amount of gravitas and inflection she gives the role, the two spearhead a wide array of almost obnoxiously unmemorable supporting characters.
Lucky, then, that Jude Law and Charlie Hunnam dominate the screen for the most part. There are flashes of brilliance in both of their performances. Hunnam plays his part with a braggadocious mixture of Moore-era Bond and Pesci in Casino, which may make him seem like an insufferable ass, but one that you can at least smile indulgently at. Law, meanwhile, seems to be having the time of his life as the Vortigern. He smarmily drapes himself over thrones, screams to the heavens and joyously struts in slow motion, creating a character that you almost like more than the hero. It’s lucky that Bana’s early appearance as Uthred is so entertaining, because otherwise we probably wouldn’t want to see Jude Law smite so.
While it is anchored in a irreconcilable story, and full of meaningless characters, King Arthur rests it’s fate on its cinematic flair, and in some measure succeeds in redeeming itself. Some (if, unfortunately, not all) of the style that Ritchie brought to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is present here, and it is undeniably cool to see Hunnam race through the forest on a horse, do some shirtless air punching, or pull a sword from a stone. We also get treated to some of the fast talking, London underworld elements of his beloved films, particularly in a scene where Arthur and friends talk to a guard, or when Arthur explains his plan to his followers. There are jokes, go-pro shots, and a beautifully curated soundtrack that perfectly accentuates the modern ridiculousness of the movie.
One of the best bits is actually Excalibur itself. While the final fight with his uncle is virtually unwatchable CGI disgrace, earlier battles where Arthur learns to use the power of the sword come across as, frankly, really cool. Slowing down the people around Arthur, and seeming to both be stronger than a usual sword and able to blast gusts of wind at people, Excalibur brings a curious new take on medieval sword fights that is utterly enthralling.
If you’re looking for a thoughtful, Macbeth-like mash-up of Snatched and 300, you’ll be left sorely wanted. But if you’re willing to give an inordinately long and confusing movie about a shearling-coat (Tom Ford: $1,699) and undercut wearing Arthur a go, you might just find you have a bucket-load of fun.