Review – King Arthur: Legend of The Sword
Often in movies that involve a sword or swordplay, a character will rest a blade on their index and pointer fingers while telling his or her protege/student/child that the sword is perfectly balanced. A lot of times the character is using it as a metaphor for how the young warrior will also need to find balance between their anger and peace, revenge and justice, what have you. Then the master will toss the sword to the protege to begin a fighting lesson. The future hero who catches the blade will then make a big gesture (usually waving the sword back and forth with a Keanu Reeves “whoa” look on their face) to reaffirm the sword’s great balance and let the audience know this is a really good sword. Then the sparring begins, eventually leading to a breakthrough for our hero. In real life there’s more to swords and swordsmanship than balance, but this is movie shorthand; cliche, but not too egregious.
King Arthur: Legend of The Sword does not contain that scene, but it does have great balance to it. A balance between Guy Ritchie‘s early career (British crime films) and recent career (blockbusters), balance between humor and THE MOST SERIOUS, and balance between stunning cinematography and the “cinematics” of a video game. It’s as if Ritchie took the “one for them, one for me” approach that defines some directors’ careers, but applied it scene to scene rather than film to film.
Legend of The Sword isn’t a traditional telling of Arthur and his knights of the round table. This is more of a street level Arthur – gritty, but not dour. Exactly what you’d expect from Guy Ritchie, but it takes a minute to get there. The movie begins with a blockbuster of a prologue where an evil mage is attacking Camelot with giant war elephants. A bridge collapses, armies fight, there’s betrayal, and a medieval ghost rider shows up to ruin young Arthur’s life. It’s CG-heavy and the emotional beats don’t work because we don’t know the characters outside of their titles. It’s OK as far as epic opening battles go, but it lacks anything specific to Guy Ritchie. Then the titles come up – another 100 million dollars of superficiality – and our remaining hope for the movie hang precariously in the balance.
Then it happens: Ritchie showed up in the editing. A sequence of quick cuts sees Arthur grow from a toddler to Charlie Hunnam. It repeats a pattern of scenes: Arthur cleans a brothel, Arthur walks in on a patron hitting a prostitute, Arthur stands up to the patron, Arthur gets beat up, Arthur trains to fight, Arthur finds a way to scam money. Each time the series repeats he learns a little more or gets one more punch in than last time. It’s great, it’s a cinematic way to show the passage of time, and it’s totally personal to Ritchie.
This is the balance that is throughout the movie. A spectacle scene for the broad market followed by a group of cockney knights making plays and taking the piss out of each other… just when the action gets a bit too familiar or too much like a videogame, it jumps back to Arthur making a crack about a Viking’s beard. The personality that was missing shows up. It makes King Arthur: Legend of The Sword a very decent blockbuster.
Hunnam’s performance is good. He’s not only relying on his natural charm but in Arthur’s constant refusal to become a leader. He brings subtle variations of selflessness and self-righteousness. Actors like Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, and Aidan Gillen are good, but they along with Arthur’s sidekicks Tom Wu and Kingsley Ben-Adir are truly supporting characters. They don’t have much story of their own, but they are giving 100 percent when they are called on, even if it’s just a reaction shot after Arthur makes them the butt of a joke. Then there’s The Mage (Astrid Gerges-Frisbey) and Back Lack (Neil Maskell) two other supporting characters that get to do a little more and they take advantage of the opportunity. Hopefully, this will mean they show up in more movies this side of the pond.
The show-stealer is Jude Law. He’s always reliable, but here he shows some real emotional depth. In most of his other work he often plays a jerk or a narcissist, while his good looks and charm undercut the badness. He’s more of a rogue than a full-on bastard. In Legend though, he’s put a tremendous sadness behind the evil. Like most fairy tales people who want power, he must sacrifice something or someone to gain that power. A few scenes where Law is making his sacrifice are truly upsetting, which in turn gives more force to his malice.
That’s really what Legend’s balance hinges on: the actors. Without their commitment to the material, Legend would be a hollow experience. It’s safe to assume that like Ritchie’s Holmes movies, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword will be optioned for franchising and hopefully that balance will be there, with Excalibur lighting the way for blockbusters that balance crowd-pleasing visuals with engaging, well-crafted stories.