The ancient tale of Camelot gets a modern-movie, hipster twist
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law & Astrid Bergès-Frisbey
Directed by Guy Richie
In the opening scene, the kingdom of Camelot of ravaged by a heathen horde and a rampage of gigantic, monstrous war elephants swinging black wrecking balls on their tree-like trunks.
Director Guy Richie’s wild-ride take on the legendary British folk tale is a bit like those jumbo Dumbos—it’s a huge, lumbering, dark fantasy that smashes and crashes into themes, events and characters that have been popularized in literature, lore, legend and popular culture for centuries.
Legend of the Sword gives Camelot a modern-movie, rock ’n’ roll makeover, with bombastic special effects, a pounding original contemporary soundtrack and a barrage of hipster Cockney slang.
“You’ve got some heat on you, Arthur,” young Arthur (Charlie Hunnam from TV’s Sons of Anarchy) is warned at one point—and he’s not being cautioned about standing too close to the fireplace.
We find out how baby Arthur was raised by in a brothel after the death of his parents at the hands of his evil uncle, Vortigem (Jude Law), now the ruler of the kingdom. Bullied by the other kids, Arthur grew up tough, haunted by nightmares of his childhood and learning to despise the king.
Director Richie brings to the movie much of his fondness for streetwise, wisecracking British lads, as in his previous films Snatch, RocknRolla and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and two Sherlock Holmes flicks. As the plot thickens and Arthur and his miscreant “crew”—with names like Wet Stick, Mischief John, Brother Blackleg and Back Lack—prepare to make their move on Vortigem, Richie indulges his love of fast-flying quips, jerky, quick-cut edits and characters fast-forwarding, downshifting into super slo-mo and “rewinding.”
Naturally, Arthur pulls “the sword” from “the stone.” But for a movie called The Legend of the Sword, we really don’t learn anything about the legend, or the sword—why it’s so powerful, how it came to be or even its name. For some reason, it’s never referred to as Excalibur, or anything—other than “the sword.”
The movie is far too occupied throwing everything else on the screen: There are family murders, a slashed throat, a severed ear, human sacrifices and knights that burst into flame. Not to mention those gargantuan elephants… huge, hissing rats… sirens that morph into a slimy blob of slithering eels… and a snake the size of a subway train. Why? If a street bloke can pull a magical blade from a rock, why not?
And it turns out Arthur’s weapon might be the world’s first smartsword—it seems to know who’s a bad guy and who’s a good guy, at least based on Arthur’s first big brawl. What’s next—self-firing catapults?
Law makes a juicy villain, and Hunnam brings a muscular, scrappy outsider’s heft and attitude to Arthur, not quite yet the nobleman he’s destined to become. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (who played the mermaid Syrena in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is runway-model cool as the mage, a mysterious rebel with magical powers who helps Arthur harness the awesomeness of the sword not called Excalibur.
And hey, isn’t that the guy from Gladiator, The Legend of Tarzan and TV’s Wayward Pines? Yes, it’s Djimon Hounsou, whose character will eventually be knighted as Bevidere. And isn’t that archer a dude from Game of Thrones? Yep, it’s Aidan Gillan (GOT’s Petyr Baelish) as Arthur’s go-to bow-and-arrow guy, Goose Fat Bill. Is that former world soccer star David Beckham? Sure is—as a not-so-chivalrous knight in not-so-shining armor. Who’s that Lady of the Lake? It’s the director’s wife, Jacqui Ainsley, who gets a bit of screen time as the ghostly aqua-lass. Wasn’t Maid Maggie in Peaky Blinders? Yes, actress Annabelle Wallis starred on the BBC crime drama from 2013 to 2016, and she’ll play archeologist Jenny Halsey in The Mummy, opening June 7.
There are characters afoot everywhere, but too often, everyone’s competing with the spewing fountain of CGI show-off excess, a patchwork of unfocused, all-over-the-place storytelling and dialogue so rich and ripe with authentic accents “from the Isles” that American ears may have trouble keeping up. (I think “Goshen me brath” was “Catchin’ my breath,” but I’m not sure.)
This is supposedly the lead-off in a franchise, the first of six—rather optimistically—planned movies about Camelot, the boy king and his magical weapon.
“Did you see everything you needed to see?” the mage asks Arthur after his venture into the Dark Lands. “I saw enough,” he tells her.
After watching Legend of the Sword, I think I did, too.
In theaters May 12, 2017