Kernel Rating (out of 5): (3 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 126 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This latest film updates the King Arthur story so that the man grew up in a brothel in old-timey London, becoming a protector and friend to the good-hearted prostitutes who worked there as well as an excellent fighter; lots of violence, including massive battle scenes, siblings killing each other, women being stabbed and having their throats slit, and violence by way of sword, arrow, and fire. A good amount of cursing, some rude jokes, and some flirting, some male shirtlessness and implied sexual nudity in the brothel, some implied sexual abuse and domestic violence also in the brothel, some nightmarish sequences involving giant bats, snakes, and other evil creatures.
Guy Ritchie puts his London-street-gangster spin on the ‘King Arthur’ legend, peppering ‘Legend of the Sword’ with exciting action sequences and engaging imagery. But the film suffers from poor pacing, a murky sense of its own mythology, and a disturbing disregard for all its female characters.
By Roxana Hadadi
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” shouldn’t have been about the man who pulled the sword out of the stone; it should have been about Robin Hood, the thief who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Guy Ritchie’s film about “King Arthur” shoehorns in elements of the legend, offering us a magical sword, a lady in a lake, and a round table of knights, but the story so often indulges in portraying Arthur as a street-wise hood who gathers a crew of rabble rousers and wages guerrilla warfare on the unjust king of England that, well, he’s more smirking thief than regal ruler. The film suffers from undeniable narrative dissonance.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” begins in Camelot, where forces led and animals possessed by the evil mage Mordred (Rob Knighton) are marching upon the kingdom; although King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana, of “The Finest Hours”) slays Mordred, what he doesn’t know is that the man was in cahoots with Uther’s younger brother Vortigern (Jude Law, of “Genius”) who wants the throne for himself. Along with the throne comes the magical sword Excalibur, forged by the mage Merlin for Uther and his descendants, but when Uther is murdered, the sword becomes encased in a stone, only to be pulled out by his rightful heir—and when the young Arthur disappears, Vortigern begins a centuries-long search to find his nephew so he can kill him and finally have both the sword and rightful rule.
That is a lot of exposition! Explaining all that backstory takes up a lot of time! And it happens often, with people in “King Arthur” just standing around and talking about all this context with each other! But when he hears it all, adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, of “Pacific Rim”) is resistant to it: He’s grown up in a brothel in Londinum, gathering respect, gold, and fighting prowess with his streetwise ways, and he’s loath to believe that he’s the rightful ruler of the land.
Yet he begins to come around to the idea when the Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"), sent by Merlin, offers an explanation for the nightmares of his mother’s death that have been plaguing him since childhood, and when the resistance leaders, Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou, of “Furious 7”) and Bill (Aidan Gillen, of “Sing Street”), inform him of what will continue to happen under Vortigern’s rule: death, slavery, decay. It’s not a future anyone wants, and only Arthur can stop it by assuming his birthright and taking his place on the throne—by any means necessary.
There’s a clear hero’s journey in “King Arthur,” but the film dawdles by taking middling steps forward narratively: Vortigern captures Arthur but doesn’t kill him; Arthur is plagued by nightmares that are repetitive in their lack of insight; the resistance goes from their hideout cave to the kingdom to attack and then escape over and over again. The rhythm of the plot is off, and while there are some thrilling action sequences—Arthur and his crew navigating the back alleys of the city, relying on their wits and the willingness of their fellow citizens to harbor them, as gunpowder arrows explode above them, tracking their location—Ritchie doesn’t offer much outside of his old tricks.
His familiar pattern of having characters explain a story with rapid-fire dialogue while flashbacks to what really happened are intercut with the present day, one of his calling cards as a director, is used as slickly here as it was in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “Sherlock Holmes,” but there are too many scenes that rely entirely on CGI effects and video game-like imagery. When the conclusion of the film feels more like “Warcraft” than anything else, you can sense Ritchie was out of his element.
There are portions of “King Arthur” that really work, like Hunnam’s believability as a tough hood who could, in his methodical brashness and smirking smugness, be the only person who could take on his paranoid, power-hungry uncle, and as that corrupt ruler, Law is magnetic. But the film’s female characters get barely any attention—if a woman appears onscreen, chances are she’ll be killed so that Arthur or Vortigern can have a chance to react to that death and swear vengeance on each other, not because the women actually have their own identities—and that’s frustrating when women played such important roles in the King Arthur legend. And you won’t be able to shake the feeling that maybe this shouldn’t have been a King Arthur movie at all—Hunnam would have been a fine scrappy Robin Hood, and Law an acceptably scheming Prince John. That’s the film Ritchie would have been better-suited to make.
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