Movie review: Ritchie delivers an uneven, confused take on ‘King Arthur’ legend
–Summer is a wonderful time of the year. It delivers some of the most hotly anticipated blockbusters of the year. But, intermixed in that, is some of the biggest bombs of the year. And though this summer season is only two weeks old, we’ve gotten one of each already.
Heading into this summer I made a short list of five blockbusters I thought could be potential bombs this summer. One of the films on that list was “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” which opened on May 12. It was a film that cost more than $150 million to make. It brought in a total Box Office of just over $15 million opening weekend, and it’s gotten middling reviews and terrible word of mouth.
King Arthur is well-trod cinematic ground. In the 1980s we got “Excalibur.” In the 1990s we got Sean Connery and Richard Gere in “First Knight.” And in the 2000s, we got Clive Owen and Keira Knightly in “King Arthur.” And now Guy Ritchie takes his crack.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” offers a decidedly different take on the legend. It begins with a young Arthur living with his parents. His father, Uther (Eric Bana), is king and the world is under attack from an evil magician who threatens Camelot. Uther quells the threat with his sword, Excalibur, but he may not have ended the danger to his family.
Soon, Uther’s brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), turns on the family and the kingdom. Uther and his wife are killed, but young Arthur manages to escape. He floats down the river and is raised as a peasant, where he becomes crafty and strong.
Flash forward years later and Vortigern is the king, and one of the most powerful magicians in the world. But he cannot yet control Excalibur, leaving him vulnerable. And he continues to search for his nephew, to kill the boy and gain control of the magical blade.
But the resistance finds Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) first. A group of fighters and a “Mage” (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), try to help Arthur realize his potential and take back his home, earning his rightful place on the throne.
By now most are familiar with the legend of King Arthur. It always includes the kingdom of Camelot and the sword Excalibur. It also often includes a round table, a knight named Lancelot and a magician named Merlin. While the round table sort of appears in this film, and Merlin gets name checked a few times, this is decidedly not a conventional take on this story.
Ritchie is known for a specific kind of filmmaking. He has a quick, frenetic pace, colorful characters and dialogue and a simple story. It’s been said that with “King Arthur” he wanted to do something different, and you can see the stylistic tensions in this film.
Sometimes the film has lavish, dark, magical special effects. Sometimes it feels like a conventional medieval epic. And, at a few points, you get that Ritchie magic. And those sequences feel strong and work. The rest of it, not so much.
Hunnam is OK in the lead role. He brings a decent presence to the screen, though his take on King Arthur is nothing to write home about. But the real issue here is Law as the villain. He has no screen presence and creates no real tension against either Bana in the early going or Hunnam in the later part of the film. Absent a strong villain, most of the slow build to the climax falls flat.
In addition, as a viewer, large chunks of the film just make no sense. I’m not sure what kind of world Ritchie is trying to create. Sometimes it feels like “Game of Thones.” Sometimes it feels like a live-action version of “The Little Mermaid.” That’s troubling, and doesn’t help create a cohesive whole.
Plus, the film is slow and dry to watch. As a summer blockbuster, you need to lean into the blockbuster aspect. This film is unable to do that. I worried that “King Arthur” would be a miss, and it is. Fortunately during this time of year you don’t have to wait long for your next blockbuster to be delivered.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language.
One star out of four.