Film Review: ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’

king arthur legend of the sword
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' director Guy Ritchie treats the Arthurian legend as opportunity for another rowdy chase after an elusive weapon.

Early on in his career, Guy Ritchie took rough-and-tumble streetwise hoodlums and elevated them to hero status. Now, he does the opposite, taking high-class literary heroes — first Sherlock Holmes and now King Arthur — and plunging them down to gutter level. The idea, one supposes, is to make these lofty cultural icons into relatable underdogs, but the effect is akin to slander. If there ever had been a real Sherlock or Arthur, they would surely be horrified to see themselves depicted as such commonplace thugs.

In Ritchie’s over-the-top, rock-and-roll “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” the less you know about the legend in question, the better. The brash British director has thrown out nearly all preexisting Athurian notions and come up with a smoking new riff on the famous sword-in-the-stone tale that makes “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” look like a work of rigorous historical scholarship by comparison.

It’s epic, in the sense that it features elaborate CG backdrops swarming with thousands of virtual extras, and it’s extravagant, to the extent that Warner Bros. flushed away millions of dollars to produce this gaudy eyesore. But ultimately, “King Arthur” is just a loud, obnoxious parade of flashy set pieces, as one visually busy, belligerent action scene after another marches by, each making less sense than the last, but all intended to overwhelm. That technique has served Richie well before — a sort of slick back-alley magic by which he distracts our attention in one direction, only to pull off something wondrous and surprising in the other, much to the audience’s collective amazement. But in this case, the approach largely backfires, as attempts to dazzle with giant elephants, a scenery-chewing Jude Law, and an occasionally shirtless stud king (played by well-cast, but otherwise squandered “The Lost City of Z” star Charlie Hunnam) leaves us more confused than awestruck.

Lumped together with a small militia of rebel soldiers, some random Vikings and a mighty French sorceress (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, sexier than Merlin, yet still powerful enough to summon birds and snakes to do her bidding), these elements constitute an entirely new take on the man who wielded Excalibur — one that isn’t remotely coherent, mind you, but intends to serve as a revisionist origin story all the same. Ritchie wants to set up a new King Arthur legend that, were it to catch on, might actually generate a sequel or two down the road (and who’s to say it won’t, when last year’s comparably ill-conceived “The Legend of Tarzan” managed to avert disaster with its still-disappointing $357 million worldwide haul?). And yet, there seems to be no small amount of confusion about the word “legend” at Warner Bros. these days, as their approach to such icons seems to be, “You think you know [insert King Arthur-scale hero here]? Well, think again!”

Ritchie and co-writers Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold (who initially sold the studio on an expansive, multi-film series) seem to have confused King Arthur with Robin Hood, re-imagining England’s chivalrous first knight as some sort of rabble-rousing proto-gangster, backed by a crew of cutthroat forest dwellers (archers, mostly) eager to stand up to the despot king Vortigern (Law), who killed Arthur’s father (Eric Bana) and seized the throne. The script also boasts a bizarre fantasy dimension, as well as peculiar aspects of the Christ story, as the challenge to pull the sword from the stone is treated less like a contest than some sort of deadly trial, forced upon every Brit of a certain age, where the winner — he who can pry Excalibur from its rocky scabbard — will be swiftly executed (much as insecure King Herod massacred countless innocents to thwart the prophecy that a newborn Jew would rise to take his throne).

After playing the straight man to Robert Downey Jr.’s borderline-unhinged Sherlock Holmes in two Ritchie-directed blockbusters, Law seems to relish getting to let loose here, and his villainous Vortigern has all the gristle of a high-camp performance. But Ritchie’s overwrought sense of flamboyance isn’t nearly queer enough to achieve “so bad it’s good” self-parody. Rather, he comes across as an aging rebel worried about being judged un-hip, clearly over-compensating in order to remain one step ahead of fellow stylists Zack Snyder (“300”), Tarsem Singh (“Mirror Mirror”), and Alex Proyas (“Gods of Egypt”) — all of whose genuinely outrageous, inadvertently awful work appears to be a source of inspiration here.

Collectively, these directors have reached a point where their films run the risk of collapsing under the weight of their own production design, especially since Hollywood no longer makes stars big enough to compete with the environments that surround them. (Have you noticed: Even Trump looks tiny when photographed at Mar Lago?)

At least Hunnam has the potential to be the next Brad Pitt, having begun his career in a series of demanding acting roles — including a long run on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” — before making the transition to blockbuster screen idol. He’s got presence, along with a sense of vulnerability that’s essential to the Arthur role, in which he plays a true-blood prince, orphaned by his uncle, raised in a brothel, educated on the streets, and thrust into the unlikely position of saving the kingdom.

But Hunnam’s competing with so much ridiculous window-dressing here. It’s as if Ritchie, who began his career with the rowdy follow-that-shotgun caper “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” has once again tried to build an entire movie around the whereabouts of a rare weapon, when the legend of the sword isn’t nearly as interesting as that of the man who wields it.

Film Review: 'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Los Angeles, May 8, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 126 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. Pictures release and presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, of a Weed Road/Safehouse Pictures, Ritchie/Wigram production. Producers: Akiva Goldsman, Joby Harold, Tory Tunnell, Steve Clark-Hall, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram. Executive producers: David Dobkin, Bruce Berman, Steve Mnuchin.

Crew

Director: Guy Ritchie. Screenplay: Joby Harold, Ritchie & Lionel Wigram; story: David Dobkin, Harold. Camera (color, widescreen): John Mathieson. Editor: James Herbert. Music: Daniel Pemberton.

With

Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Aidan Gillen, Freddie Fox, Craig McGinlay, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell, Annabelle Wallis.

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  1. mdflip says:

    I can buy the concept of magical swords, multi-dimensional monsters, and creature controlling sorcery, but the idea of an old England with people of Asian and African descent integrated into positions of authority and respect is too much of a stretch for me.

  2. Neil Russell Bailey says:

    What a great movie. Fantastic to get away from all the junk in the world – it is loud – exciting – great effects – go see

  3. I loved the movie! It was full of action, never boring. Special effects were wonderful, almost no bad language. Kids will love it I think. A little comedy and all around fun movie!!

  4. I really wanted to like this movie- I love Charlie Hunnam and I really love some of Guy Ritchie’s movies- Snatch and RocknRolla are my favorites. But this movie was just CG. I think there was more CG than there was King Arthur. And so obviously CG that Charlie Hunnam sometimes looked like a character in a video game. This could have been a really cool movie if Guy Ritchie had invested some time in the script and character development. Instead you get a 2 hour bore of a film watching King Arthur fight CG creatures and bad guys. Which is too bad because you could see there was a cool movie in there, buried under all the CG. The failure of this movie is not on Charlie Hunnam- he did a great job with what he was given.

  5. Angela Harris says:

    Being a longtime, anything related to King Arthur fan, I have read every version in print, and seen every version in film and tv. While I respect your opinion, I have to disagree with it. I fully appreciated the change ups the writers and director made to the story, especially that Arthur was a man of the people, raised up without the privileges of royalty, but rather in the deeps of an urban poverty. The addition of street fighting, graffiti, rebellious rabble and urban decay, brought the story into our times, giving it a relevance that would have been sorely lacking had it been the high-fantasy chivalrous knighthood story first written centuries ago. Though I do agree somewhat, with your observation that the man wielding the sword is more interesting than the sword itself, we have to remember that, traditionally, Excalibur is as famous in legend as that man. I am looking forward to future continuations of this story, and especially of watching Charlie Hunnam flesh out King Arthur, now that he has become him.

  6. Edward N. Haas says:

    I agree: This movie is a stinker. I had to force myself to endure the torture of seeing it all the way to the end.

  7. Chris Gutt says:

    We went to see this with an open mind. My family all thought it was really good actually. People have to remember, this was meant to be the first of three movies and it wasn’t supposed to have everything all crammed into one movie. Yes, if you compare it exactly to Excalibur it is different , but the main things are still there. Our only real complaint was the entire insertion of David Bekham. His entire scene was horrible and did take away from the film. When Arthur is using the sword, it is EPIC!!. A Great movie to go see for Summer Fare!

  8. It’s critics like Mr. Debruge who poison the film industry with their opinions. You can tell that he wanted to bash this movie the moment he walked into the theater. Guy Ritchie did the best he could with the material he was given, and it’s not as bad as the critics keep saying. Do yourselves a favor and watch it for yourself before you judge it. You might be pleasantly surprised.

  9. Zesty says:

    Screw critics its just an opinion,i’ve seen some great films that have had terrible reviews,like the critical madness of Batman superman which turned out to be a good film or USA not getting the great wall when most of the world enjoyed it,,go watch Arthur,I bet its better than the critics say.

  10. Liz says:

    Problem is critics are looking for remake of Excalibur and this is not it and they’re upset. It’s a different take shot to entertain. Go in looking for a good time and you will definitely get it. I saw it early and loved it (and so did everyone in the theater- they were all clapping at the end)

    • satireknight says:

      Sorry, but most people aren’t looking for a remake of Excalibur. Most are looking for the exact opposite.

      • SY says:

        All six of them were clapping at the end? Why, were they trying to get the blood circulating again after sitting through that brain-numbathon, LOL!!

      • Jon says:

        sorry, but judging from action/adventure box office receipts you are incorrect. most people ARE looking for this type of film.

  11. T says:

    How is your trump comment relevant here???

  12. Cynthia Foxe says:

    man from uncle stunk and this has a similar odor….
    sad.

  13. Could have used a Jaeger here…….
    Sounds like a honest review….I know the studio pushed this back a couple of times,they must have known it was dragon poo.
    Bring on Wonder Woman!!!

  14. loco73 says:

    The last movie Ritchie made that was decent was “Snatch”…the rest range from “meh” to crappy (and awful)…He is just a copy-and-paste Quentin Tarantino light…

  15. paully says:

    The man from UNCLE was awful awful..

  16. paully says:

    Excalibur by Boorman will always be the ultra standard.. This looks like a flop..
    How does Ritchie get the money to make this stuff..

  17. Dunstan says:

    I liked Guy Ritchie’s early films but, having seen the trailer for this one, have very bad feelings about it. I was, and remain, a huge fan of “Excalibur” written by Rospo Pallenlberg and John Boorman and directed by Boorman.

  18. JoeMcG says:

    Ouch! It will be interesting to see what the viewers think…

  19. You don’t know a damned thing about Sherlock Holmes, do you? For the record, he absolutely was a drug addict who slept on the floor, experimented on his dog, got into amateur boxing matches, and generally pissed off all of London including Watson himself. Ritchie’s the first director to portray Holmes as he was written. It’s like when Daniel Craig first started playing James Bond and everyone was like “What? That’s not how Bond is supposed to be”, except it was -exactly- how Bond was supposed to be.

    As for Ritchie’s King Arthur tale, no one has the slightest clue what Arthur was like “in real life” (assuming he even existed at all), so “Legend of the Sword” is just as valid an interpretation of the tales as any other.

    • Angela Harris says:

      I second your remarks on Sherlock! It was brilliant and very satisfying to see Sherlock presented as he was in ACD’s stories. Ritchie has been as hit and miss as any other Hollywood director, not more so, or less than. Let’s be fair. In any other hands, this film would not have been made with the grit it was, and would have been too “knight in shining armor”, and wouldn’t have taken advantage of Hunnam’s ability. I dare say that Hunnam might not have been as interested in this role, if it had been.

    • Yes, and the sod is even making a big deal of the fact that the search for the man who can draw the sword was intended to end in his death makes far more sense from a historical perspective. That’s not a biblical tale. Kingdoms passed through succession, marriage,or war. You’d have never had a bunch of knights and petty lords competing for Kingship by yanking a magic sword out of a stone. A king would already be in place, and very unlikely to simply abdicate. No, he’d be far more likely to have the man who pulled the sword killed as a threat to his own sovereignty. And the comment about this movie’s bizzarre fantasy element…what? Arthurian legends involve sorcerers, a magic sword, a magic cup, a water fairy, magically induced incest, etc. What, about any of that, ever struck this critic or anyone else as not being a bizarre fantasy element?

  20. Chef says:

    Why would they go with Ritche on this?!? Sounds like a really interesting take on the Arthur tale, but they had to know Ritchie would turn it into a stylized over-compensating and probably quite annoying spectacle.

  21. Ali says:

    I have actually already seen this movie at an early screening in April by being an AMC Stubs member. While I agree that this is in no way your average King Arthur movie, that is all I can say I agree with in this article. Could you sound anymore snobbish and annoying to read your review? If I had to listen to this in person I would need to drink alcohol to do it. This movie is quite visually appealing to look at. It is quite humorous at times with its witty banter at story telling. I liked the development of new characters we haven’t seen before instead of Merlin always being the one who solves everything. I thought it was true to the old style of castles and clothing but with a modern grunge twist that suites Charlie Hunnam being in the film. I loved the creativity of the logic behind the sword and the stone story in this version.

    • I fully agree with Ali. Just saw it, and it was fantastic. I swear, critics whine if it’s just a remake, and they whine just as annoyingly when it’s not true to the originals. Arthurian legend is exactly that, legend. It’s not history. I also think it rather sad that this critic was confused by any part of the movie. It was pretty easy to follow. It also wasn’t a story about the sword and the legend of the sword itself actually comes in very short bursts. That’s probably why it was titled King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and not Excalibur. When history speaks of sworn swords, they are referring to the weilders, not the tool wielded.

  22. Douglas Gray says:

    The movie was not liked by the Rotten Tomatoes reviewers.

  23. Susan Rogers says:

    Boorman’s Excalibur is a work of art.

  24. brian says:

    So…. was it a good movie? Do you recommend it?

  25. Rex says:

    John Boorman’s Excalibur.

    Done.

    (good call placing Ritchie in with Snyder, Singh and Proyas, though)

    • John says:

      Boorman’s version is still the most accurate interpretation from the original King Arthur story, only one that included the search for the Holy Grail.

  26. Jesse Pinkman says:

    The film has rather average critics everywhere…
    And besides have incense ALL the superhero movies!
    The movie Man from Uncle was sulking…yet he was really good, So…

  27. JIMjones says:

    Yawn… another Variety review, another random Trump reference shoehorned in.

    You idiots should realize this actually gives the conservatives’ war on media bias ammunition.

    • Rex says:

      JIMjones’ comment actually makes some sense, since Conservatives get their entire world view from media websites, comments sections and social media.

    • Reader says:

      Politics and presidential administrations have been used as cultural reference points for generations. Please deal with it.

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