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It’s hard to keep track of how many films have been made about King Arthur and his trusty sword and all of those knights at that big round table. The most popular of them remains John Boorman’s 1981 extravaganza “Excalibur.” But when I recently re-watched the Boorman film, I found it still to be great looking, yet kind of clunky in its manner of telling the story.
Now here comes Guy Ritchie, the British director who’s given us kinetic, comic thrillers including “Snatch” and “Sherlock Holmes,” and who has regularly displayed a fondness for making films with extraordinary visuals that take precedence over narrative storytelling. He absolutely gets the story across in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” but he makes sure to infuse it with as much dazzle as possible.
Like “Excalibur,” “Legend” has a lot going on, and with so many people and events to keep track of, both films tend to be confusing. But Ritchie has a bit of a leg up in that area, as his film tells only a part of the sprawling myth. It could be argued that it ends fairly close to where other Arthurian films have begun. Don’t look for a Lancelot or a Guinevere; they’re in another section of the story. And don’t hope to see very much of Merlin or Mordred; their parts are reduced to cameos.
But Ritchie’s entry is a true spectacle, beginning, in grand manner, with a massive battle scene, an attack on Camelot by hordes of sword-wielding soldiers who are accompanied by gigantic elephants that knock down or crush everything and everyone in their path.
There’s hardly a moment to catch one’s breath when the film offers up a Shakespearian dose of treachery and murder as wise King Uther (Eric Bana) falls victim to his brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who has called on the forces of evil -- magical evil, mind you -- to give him power and make him the new king.
What happens to Uther isn’t revealed till later, but it’s clear that his son Arthur escapes his uncle’s perfidy to begin what many young lads would consider to be an interesting upbringing among the brothels of the land. Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up to be a strapping fellow, and a street-fighting thug. The complicated story of those days is entertainingly told, in full-blown Ritchie style, through flashbacks of constantly moving cameras, fast talking, even faster editing, and chaos.
A glance at the film’s title makes it clear that things will eventually get around to sharp and shiny Excalibur, which is stuck in a stone at the bottom of a lake. When the waters suddenly vanish every man worth his mettle gets in line to pull that sword out, knowing that whoever succeeds will be named the born king, and will usurp power from the unpopular, black magic-practicing King Vortigern, who rather enjoys being a bad guy. Jude Law’s best line of dialogue is: “When people really fear you, it’s the most intoxicating feeling a man can possess.”
The rapscallion Arthur has no interest in putting his hands around Excalibur’s hilt, but is peer-pressured into it. You know what happens next. But it happens here with a blast of power that shakes the young man’s foundation. It’s a case of the sword controlling the person who holds it, not the other way around, which becomes a major theme of the film. That goes along with the film’s bountiful supply of magic, taking physical form via the introduction of The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), an exotic-looking doe-eyed woman who is able to control the thoughts of animals.
The story, as it must, turns to a maturing Arthur going up against Uncle Vortigern. The main problem for the new king is that Vortrigern has an army of 100,000, and Arthur commands a small, motley crew of resistance fighters.
Hunnam, who’s also currently starring in the comparatively contemplative “The Lost City of Z,” plays his Arthur as someone reluctant to be a rebel until he decides it’s time to be a rebel. He shows terrific range in both movies, as well as in just this one, and he’s a terrific addition to the world of Guy Ritchie.
-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”
Written by Guy Ritchie, Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram; directed by Guy Ritchie
With Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Berges-Frisbey