Everything old is new again. While there is an audience that is hungry for nostalgic fare, it’s a business decision by the studios hungry for blockbuster franchises that so many old properties are returning to the big screen in new forms. If you’re familiar with a property before it has appeared before the cameras, the marketing departments have a head start in trying to sell the movie. It’s also why so few blockbusters are based on original ideas – it’s just harder and riskier to sell something unknown to the public. The latest in the long line of revived properties is King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Ritchie injects a fair amount of wit in his blockbuster revitalization of the legendary tale but the film simply can’t escape its restricting framework of being the origin story for a would-be franchise hoping to capitalize on the popularity of medieval fantasy in the wake of Game of Thrones.
Before Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) can ascend to the throne, King Arthur opens with a wild, insane prologue that sets the stage for what’s to come. King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is leading his army in a battle against the Mages, who summon massive beasts – elephants so large they could stomp all over King Kong – that wreak havoc upon the kingdom. With his mighty sword Excalibur, King Uther is able to slay the leader of the Mages and save his kingdom. However, his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) has a lust for power and stages a coup to displace his brother and ascend to the throne. While trying to make their escape, King Uther and his wife are slain before their young child, who successfully boards a small boat and makes his way to Londinium where he rescued and raised in a local brothel.
The prologue to King Arthur doesn’t always make sense at first as it takes a bit of time for the film to establish exactly what kind of mystical elements are at play. Once that prologue has been handled, Ritchie allows his opening credits to serve as a form of montage that establishes the rise of Vortigern’s evil empire and Arthur’s ambitious youth as both a training warrior and brothel employee.
The waters surrounding Vortigen’s fortress begin to recede and display Excalibur firmly wedged within the stone. The mystical creatures beneath the castle inform Vortigen that only the son of Uther can remove the powerful blade from the stone and only upon his death can Vortigen wield the power of Excalibur. Elsewhere in the kingdom, Arthur and his cohorts have run into trouble with the authorities for a confrontation with some Vikings. This presents another one of Ritchie’s most electrifying sequences of King Arthur, as the story is constantly interrupted and told in an unusual sequence of events. It’s a scene that is practically pulled out of Ritchie’s earlier crime pictures and transposed into Medieval England.
Arthur is eventually captured by the Vortigern’s men who transport him with thousands of other young men in the region to try his hand at removing the sword in the stone only to surprise everyone and himself by being successful. He’s quickly captured and sentenced to death, where he’ll be beheaded in the public square. Before the axe can remove his head, a rescue party led by The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) free Arthur from his shackles and take him to a secluded spot in the woods where Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Bill (Aidan Gillen) are leading a resistance. With a bit of training, some planning, and the mystical guidance of The Mage, Arthur can defeat Vortigern before his dark powers grow too strong and assume the throne of England thus freeing his people.
King Arthur works best when Guy Ritchie is eschewing standard blockbuster protocol and playing with cinematic form. Unfortunately, that’s not often enough, as most of the time King Arthur feels like a mashup of Batman Begins, 300, and Game of Thrones in an attempt to establish a sprawling mythology that will run for many, many more sequels. The action of the film is slathered in CGI and often doesn’t provide the oohs and ahhs that it’s aiming for, but Ritchie does sneak in a couple of impressive moments in the action. No matter how good certain moments are, King Arthur can’t escape the trappings of being a franchise starter, teasing characters that are intended to appear in sequels and a climax free of suspense because it’s all preordained to continue.
There are so many supporting characters that just don’t have much screen time that it becomes difficult to remember who is who, leaving me to believe that many of these characters’ moments were left on the cutting room floor. Whether it’s Arthur’s cohorts in his days in the brothel (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir and Neil Maskell) or George (Tom Wu), the Asian guru who taught Arthur martial arts (I’m not kidding and expect a certain level of backlash), there’s a real lacking depth to the people that surround Arthur in his quest for the throne. It’s simply a case of a movie trying to establish too much in a two-hour movie at the expense of the story being told.
After delivering a career-best performance earlier this year in The Lost City of Z, Charlie Hunnam continues to be emerging from the wooden shell that has prevented the hunky leading man from superstardom. He’s not consistently excellent in King Arthur, but it’s his best leading performance in a blockbuster of this scale at this point in his career. Sadly, the screenplay by Ritchie, Joby Harold, and Lionel Wigram (from a story by Harold and David Dobkin) fails to give its leading a man anything resembling a character arc. The entire journey for Arthur is to simply claim a birthright and never does this adventure seem too daunting for the hero.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is neither a triumph nor a disaster, though it has elements that resemble both extremes of the spectrum. For everything that is bold and inventive about King Arthur there’s something equally generic for a blockbuster origin story. The forces that are driving this new King Arthur are simply that of business and not entirely artistic. Despite that fact, there are slivers of artistry in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. It’s not particularly good, but at least it’s not an absolute mess.