FILM REVIEW – KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD. With Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana. Written by Joby Harold and Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language. 126 minutes.
There are many movie versions of the King Arthur legend, including a musical (“Camelot”), a Disney cartoon (“The Sword in the Stone”) and a broad spoof (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail”). However, director Guy Ritchie–who was willing to give us a fresh take on “Sherlock Holmes”–wasn’t put off. He saw that there hadn’t been one that combined martial arts with giant snakes; now, there has been.
KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD focuses on Arthur’s rise to power. As a babe he, has witnessed the murder of his father, King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), and mother by his evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). Sent adrift downriver to Londinium, he is discovered by a group of decidedly healthy-looking prostitutes. In a montage, we see his rough upbringing which serves to toughen him up, particularly the training in Asian martial arts he receives from George (Tom Wu).
As an adult, he looks out for the women and his crew, but meanwhile Vortigern is obsessed with the notion that Uther’s heir will withdraw the sword Excalibur (which is embedded in a stone) and lead a revolution against him. Arthur does so early on and the rest of the film is about Arthur and his allies, include the Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), plotting to bring Arthur to power.
As Saturday matinee fare it works, with plenty of action, and actors who bring some heft to the material. If it seems like a variation of “Game of Thrones” it may be for reasons beyond the royal jockeying for power and medieval trappings. There’s the casting of Aiden Gillen as one of Arthur’s key supporters, given that he may be best known as “Littlefinger” on the HBO series. This is a surprisingly diverse medieval England, which also includes Djimon Hounsou as Bedivere.
As one would expect from a Ritchie film, there’s never a dull moment. When Arthur gets going in a fight the action shifts to slow motion so we can appreciate the uncanny powers he seems to have acquired with the sword. There’s also sorcery involving a variety of species (and special effects), perhaps most effective in the scenes where we see the price that Vortigern has to pay to maintain his power. It’s a rare instance where a figure of evil acknowledges how horrible he’s being instead of playing the cartoon villain, yet not stopping himself from doing whatever it takes to achieve his aims.
Of the cast, the weight of the film falls on Charlie Hunnam, who has gotten kudos in a number of supporting roles (and he played the lead on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” for seven seasons) but here has to play the title character. Portraying Arthur as an action hero, Hunnam shows himself capable of more than the usual requirements of suffering defeat before triumphing over evil. Whether he’s capable of more depth will no doubt be tested in other roles. Here, it’s more important that he be someone audiences can root for rather than spending too much time exploring his deeper motivations.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is not likely to be be remembered as one of the great depictions of the Arthurian legend on screen. Yet as action films go, it’s engaging enough for those mere mortals who–as the Mage warns Arthur–look away when they can’t bear what they see. Audiences willing to play along won’t have to look away too much.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.