Hollywood has offered up many versions of the King Arthur story – from “Camelot” to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” The most recent effort, until now, was Clive Owen’s “King Arthur” in 2004. That one purported to be the “true story behind the legend.”
This newest film, “King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword,” makes no such claims to authenticity. In fact, the very opening scene establishes its fantasy credentials with gigantic CGI-ed elephants the size of mountains engaged in battle. It’s a world in which humans do battle with sorcerers (mages), swords have mystical powers, and spirits can take the forms of over-sized eagles or weird underwater mermaids.
This medieval fantasy world is nonetheless grounded in a rather gritty and grimy reality. The boy who will grow up to be King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is raised in a brothel, masters the art of street fighting, and thrives quite nicely in a gang of thieves.
Unbeknownst to him, his evil uncle King Vortigern (Jude Law) is plotting his demise.
Arthur’s life is turned upside-down when he unexpectedly pulls the magic sword (Excalibur) from the stone and instantly becomes a marked man – both by the sitting king and by the revolutionaries who hope to overthrow that king.
Arthur wants none of it. He insists he has no interest in power and never will.
“I’m not getting drawn into this mess … There’s an army of you and only one of me. I’ll talk. I’m happy to talk. But there is no way that I am fighting.”
Then, of course, he spends the rest of the movie fighting. At over two hours long, this film provides a lot of time for fighting. Too much time. As spectacular as that fighting can be at times, it gets wearying.
Director Guy Ritchie must sense that because every so often he uses a few tricks of the trade. For instance, when a character is narrating a story that is being enacted on screen and that character then stops and revises his story, the images on screen reverse direction and then start over with the revised version.
At other times, the language gets anachronistically colloquial.
It’s jarring to hear the expression WTF or have the evil King scowl out, “Just do your F-ing job.” Whatever validity these distinctive approaches might have is lost by their erratic application. They seem to arise more out of creative desperation than any aesthetic choice.
Charlie Hunnam, who just last month starred in “The Lost City of Z” as a kind of prim and proper explorer, is a believably rough-and-tumble King Arthur. But as good as Jude Law is as the evil King, one gets the distinct impression he’d rather be doing Shakespeare (Richard III, anyone?) In other words, he’s slumming.
In the end, “King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword” is not compelling enough to justify any kind of legendary status. It’s dutiful but a little dreary too.