Legend of the Sword‘s brazen reimagining of Arthurian mythos, coupled with Ritchie’s style, makes for a bombastic yet entertaining King Arthur epic.
In the ancient settlement of Londinium, young working-class man Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) makes his way protecting the women of the brothel where he was raised and operating with his gang of fellow pickpockets and thieves; in the process accumulating a small fortune for himself, on the side. While Arthur suffers from mysterious visions of a night long ago, he has little reason to suspect that the universe has anything special planned for him – until one day, when he is picked up by the guards of King Vortigern (Jude Law) and, along with several other men his age, forced to try and pull the legendary sword Excalibur from the stone in which it resides… which he does.
It turns out that Arthur is truly the sole heir of the late King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) and the one prophecized to become king, making him a direct threat to his uncle Vortigern’s rule. Although Arthur would prefer to simply keep his head down and keep living his life as he has been, he is soon pulled into the larger resistance against Vortigern led by his father’s old knight Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and abetted by a mysterious, yet powerful mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey). With their help, Arthur must learn to harness the power of Excalibur and lead the fight against Vortigern – who has more than a few magical tricks up his sleeves as well.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the latest reimagining of a older property overseen by Guy Ritchie, following his previous collaborations with Warner Bros. Pictures on the two Robert Downey Jr.-headlined Sherlock Holmes movies and the big screen reboot of the 1960s spy TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Recalling his approach on those movies, Ritchie applies his signature flashy storytelling touch to Legend of the Sword, in an effort to breathe fresh life into the (especially) well-trod tale of “The Man Who Would Be King” Arthur. While the final movie results can be messy at times, Ritchie mostly succeeds at that goal here. Legend of the Sword‘s brazen reimagining of Arthurian mythos, coupled with Ritchie’s style, makes for a bombastic yet entertaining King Arthur epic.
Whereas Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur attempts to present the story of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in a light that is both traditional and overly grounded, Legend of the Sword aspires to be anything but old-fashioned or “realistic”. This is quickly established during the movie’s prologue, which combines stylized medieval fantasy imagery – bringing to mind the video game series The Witcher and, of course, the Lord of the Rings trilogy – with Ritchie’s now-trademark technical flourishes (see the usage of bullet-time action sequences – check that, the “Excalibur-time” action sequences, in this case). Legend of the Sword then settles into the rhythm of one of Ritchie’s own British crime capers, effectively reimagining the streets of Londinium as a medieval version of modern London’s criminal underworld (a la Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and RocknRolla) and then integrating that world into the movie’s larger fantasy setting. While this re-invention of the Arthur universe borders on being slapdash in its overarching design (and some moviegoers will understandably feel it is exactly that), Ritchie’s energetic and inspired direction keeps the whole thing from sliding off the rails completely.
The Legend of the Sword screen story credited to David Dobkin (who worked on an earlier iteration of the project that was titled Arthur & Lancelot) and co-screenwriter Joby Harold is a solid, but otherwise conventional hero’s journey narrative. It’s the storytelling and character elements that Ritchie and his writing/producing partner Lionel Wigram weave into the tapestry here that give this big-budget adventure a real personality and flavor. Legend of the Sword reflects Ritchie’s ongoing interest in telling stories about antiheroes, transforming Arthur and his future Knights into noble criminals and adding a fun heist genre element to the proceedings here, as Arthur and his gang plot out their “jobs” with the organized resistance against Vortigern. Those who are familiar with Ritchie’s previous movies may recognize that Legend of the Sword uses variations on some of his old tricks in this respect – be it snappy banter or dynamic montages that crosscut back and forth in time, in order to make expository conversations more interesting. However, in a movie that blends the look and feel of a Ridley Scott epic (thanks to Scott’s own frequent cinematographer, John Mathieson) with goofy CGI fantasy monsters, the caper aspect is but another ingredient that works curiously well here and makes this take on Arthur’s adventure all the more memorable.
Similar to Ritchie’s previous movies, Legend of the Sword prioritizes production design and filmmaking style over narrative substance, as well as character development. The movie’s talented ensemble cast helps to make up the difference in this respect, starting with Charlie Hunnam at his most rascally-charismatic here, playing honorable thief and reluctant would-be king Arthur. Arthur’s seasoned allies here are played by reliable-as-ever character actors Djimon Hounsou as Sir Bedivere and Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) as Goosefat Bill Wilson, while Kingsley Ben-Adir (Trespass Against Us) and Neil Maskell (Humans) bring a nice mixture of cockiness and loyalty to their roles as the members of Arthur’s gang and brothers in arms, Wet Stick and Back Lack. Marco Polo‘s Tom Wu also plays a small, but noteworthy, role here as Arthur’s bare knuckle-brawling comrade and mentor, “Kung Fu” George.
As is the case with most of Ritchie’s offerings, the female characters in Legend of the Sword are few in number and are typically restricted to being glorified background players (see, for example, Peaky Binders‘ Annabelle Wallis as Maid Maggie and Supergirl‘s Katie McGrath’s brief appearance here as Vortigern’s wife, Elsa). The exception to this rule is Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, whose nameless Mage makes for a nice replacement for Merlin (who, without spoiling anything, is mentioned here) as the Knights’ stoic magical ally in Legend of the Sword‘s take on the Arthur mythology. Rounding out the ensemble are Eric Bana as Arthur’s father Uther – who gets a few moments to shine as a (super)heroic warrior during the film’s flashbacks – and Jude Law as Vortigern, a fairly two-dimensional antagonist whose emotional vulnerabilities (courtesy of Law’s performance) and unique supernatural abilities help make him a decent variation on the “evil uncle” archetype.
By stitching together a medieval fantasy epic with a Guy Ritchie crime caper, Legend of the Sword delivers a King Arthur re-telling that stands on its own and is surprisingly unique – though of course, whether it’s “unique” for the right or wrong reasons, will depend in no small part on how one feels about Ritchie’s filmography on the whole. Those who enjoy Ritchie’s output in general are the most likely to find Legend of the Sword to be an exhilarating summer popcorn movie romp and appreciate it for what it is: a film that uses modern stylistic choices and pop genre elements (including a pulsating, drum-heavy score by Daniel Pemberton) in its efforts to make an old classic as engaging for contemporary audiences as older re-tellings were, for those who grew up on them.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 126 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language.
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