*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
When a studio signs on for six movies before the original is even available to the public, you should probably be wary, especially when it seems that Guy Ritchie is still living in his Sherlock Holmes (2009) glory days. Seriously, he even cast Jude Law again. In other words, not only am I not entirely sure this isn’t somehow the start of Ritchie’s third Sherlock Holmes movie, I’m not even entirely sure this is King Arthur, even though the title of the film is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. If you don’t know the legends of King Arthur (especially before he came king), you can really only assume this is the same King Arthur because of his name, a couple of names thrown around in the legend like Merlin and Percival, and the fact that he pulls his sword out of a rock. Does that mean Legend of the Sword is not worth seeing? Not necessarily. This just might not be the story of King Arthur you expect – in fact it was pitched to studios as a cross between Lord of the Rings and Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) – and you should go in with that in mind as you watch this new version of Camelot.
After a long war with the mages led by the evil Mordred (Rob Knighton), the kingdom of Camelot is finally granted a victory from its King, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). It is not long however before his brother Vortigern (Law) stages a coup, killing Uther and his wife. Their son, Arthur, barely escapes down the river and is saved by prostitutes who raise him in their brothel. Many years later, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) has grown stronger and more cocky, challenging a group of Vikings who hurt one of the prostitutes who saved him and attracting the eye of the law. As punishment, he is sent back to Camelot and forced to attempt to pull the old king’s sword from the stone, a trick Vortigren put in place to draw his brother’s heir out of hiding. When Arthur succeeds, he is pulled into the rebel forces to defeat Vortigren and put the true heir of Camelot back on the throne, though Arthur wants no part of it himself. As Vortigren works to bring his power to its greatest height, Arthur must learn to wield Excalibur and take his place as Camelot’s ruler.
This film could not be more Guy Ritchie if it tried. I’ve already mentioned his continued use of Law, of course, but several of the artistic elements have been sprinkled into the tale of Camelot from the cobblestone streets of Sherlock’s London. The use of slow motion in particular is apparent throughout the two hours, emphasizing action sequences with some very firm power, a nice change of pace to some of the action sequences that plague today’s films that have so many cuts you forget who and where everyone is in relation to everything else. Ritchie also took note from the overuse of slow motion in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011) and learned exactly how much slow motion is too much, so that is used to its greatest effect. You can also hear plenty of violins and broken piano sounds, both reminiscent of the distinctly Romanian feel of Sherlock Holmes, and all of the actors speak in the very distinct mumble that we have become used to attempting to decipher when they start speaking quickly. To counter the slow motion action is some quickly cut montage work in the form of storytelling (picture Gil explaining his escape plan in Finding Nemo (2003) and speed up his talking) which garbles the intricate speech of Arthurian times – at least, until it’s time for the dirty jokes. This is a bit of a disadvantage for anyone who is not a main character or widely known for their work on other projects (looking at you, Aiden Gillen), since their names are often lost in the mumbles of the monologues.
Whatever doubts you may have about the story of King Arthur being adapted in this way, you can be rest assured that Legend of the Sword puts the great scale of this old legend at the forefront of this tale. The magic of the final battle scene alone (strangely reminiscent to the Tron franchise, actually) proves that the budget of this film was not wasted, though sadly ticket sales have not made back nearly half of it. Law gives a surprisingly touching performance, for an evil king, and it is far more interesting than Hunnam’s gruff Arthur who feels very familiar, even if little else in the film does. There is also a great deal to be said for The Mage (Astrid Bergés-Frisbey), a magical being whose guidance of Arthur is far less interesting than the powers she possesses, including the ability to share a mind and body with animal counterparts like snakes and hawks. If you can stare into the eyes of The Mage while she is connected to her creatures and not be a little amazed, all of the magic of this film may be being lost on you, because it’s in these little magical details that the mages are really ruling behind the scenes.
There are also details that, while interesting, seem a little off in the world of the film. For example, it is explained to the audience how Vortigren works with the evil mage Mordred, and for a time he even lived with the mages as a peace offering from his father. This does not explain, however, the weird octopus sirens that curl into a giant Ursula-the-sea-witch sort of creature, even if it kind of explains Vortigren’s workings with blood magic. Where did they come from? What is their purpose? What even are they, really? Honestly I can’t remember Vortigren in the old Arthurian tales so I don’t know if those explain any better than the film does. It is also interesting – though not necessarily a detriment – that many of the characters people are familiar with in Camelot’s tale make no appearance. Merlin, though spoken of, never actually appears onscreen, at least half of the round table of knights have yet to appear, and the rather large characters of Guinevere and Lancelot are not even mentioned. This could be, of course, because of the six planned sequels that were expected to follow The Legend of the Sword, but given its less than satisfactory performance at the box office, it is likely that those characters will never see their own film. It’s almost a little sad, really, because after the ending of The Legend of the Sword, the audience does have to wonder what other stories Arthur can tell us now that his-coming-into-his-throne story has been told.
3 / 5
If you want your movies to think big, give the audience something big to think about. As big as six sequels, apparently.