So is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword exactly what you were expecting from a Guy Ritchie take on Arthurian legend? Well, I guess that depends on what you were expecting. It’s not quite Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s not even quite Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels meets Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones (Were you really expecting that much Arthurian legend?). It’s that, but what I wasn’t expecting was how much it reminded me of the first Conan movie. More on that below.
More to the point, is it good? It. is. so. damn. good. There is finally a modern epic fantasy movie to rival the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s that good, it’s that fun, it’s that epic, and it looks that good (arguably better). Oh, and the score is perfect.
Ritchie does not mess about (this will be a theme). The movie opens with 200-foot tall olyphants straight out of Lord of the Rings assaulting Camelot. Mages from the tower on the kaiju elephant’s back incinerate soldiers manning the walls. It almost veers into the lazy disintegration CGI trope, but it still looks great. Magic isn’t easy to translate to the screen; Legend of the Sword does it very well.
The fair knights of Camelot are screwed, no? Well, no, not when King Uther (this is backstory) has his Sword +5+25 of badassery. He leaps from the remains of a stone bridge onto the side of the elephant, scales it, uses the power of the Sword to dispel Mordred’s magical attacks, and single-handedly slays him. This is a king who gets shit done.
Mordred is defeated, but all is not well in the kingdom. There is fighting in the castle, and both Uther and his brother, Vortigern (played by Jude Law) are rushing their families to seeming safety. But if you’ve seen any of the trailers, or, uh, that his name is “Vortigern,” you can guess Law’s character is up to no good. While Uther is trying to get his wife and son to safety via the water (why he is running now when he just faced down a kaiju without blinking isn’t explained), Vortigern stabs his wife by the water (Why? Give it a few minutes.) A young Arthur watches Frazetta’s Death Dealer kill his mother, then is off on a boat to be raised in a brothel.
This is an origin story, but Ritchie spends about 10 minutes on what another director would have burned an hour on. A rapid fire sequence shows Arthur growing into a man. Defending prostitutes, making a little coin on the dock, learning how to fight from a Chinese guy named Kung Fu George. Why? Because it’s cool, that’s why.
All of this in about 30 minutes, and the story proper starts when waters recede and Excalibur is revealed. Genre-savvy enough to know that only the born king can draw it, Vortigern plans to have every man of the right age in the kingdom attempt it under the watchful eye of his Blacklegs (the masked warriors who look so badass in the trailers). The born king will then be easily captured and killed. Vortigern killing his wife is explained when he returns to the water’s edge to talk to…a pile of snakes? No! It’s Ursula the Sea Witch from the Little Mermaid (ok, originality is not Ritchie’s strong suit here). Arthur is immediately captured after pulling sword from stone, but of course there is a rescue. Including a mage controlling an eagle like something straight out of The Beastmaster.
I mentioned earlier the similarities to Conan. Legend of the Sword is epic fantasy, not sword & sorcery, but it has a lot of the old pulp ethos. One big part of that is how Ritchie sort of throws everything against the wall to see what will stick. Everything I’ve mentioned, plus giant bats, rodents of unusual size (really), birds like something from Alfred Hitchcock or The Eye of the World, a massive snake…and I’m sure more stuff that I’ve already forgotten about or don’t want to spoil. Most of it pulled straight from somewhere else, but man it works. Ritchie never worries that he’s going to overload the viewer with too much fun, and he never gives you a chance to catch your breath. The pace is bloody murderous, something else straight out of the pulps. It’s also distinctly old-fashioned in that we have a badass hero, a battle of good versus evil, served neat with no chaser, a distinctly masculine tone, and a love interest who our hero doesn’t hesitate to romance and who is worthy of him without inexplicably showing him up.
It’s not perfect. Most of the problems are with the aforementioned murderous pace. A few scenes are still too long, a few could’ve stood a chance to breath, and two or three could’ve been cut altogether. Sometimes, especially in the second half, Ritchie leans too much on tired tropes.
The purists will leave disappointed. Legend of the Sword is really just bookended by the legend. But Arthurian legend is so splintered that there isn’t much you can’t do with it. The movie never really feels like it’s set in 6th century Britain, but that’s part of the pulp charm.
It’s visually gorgeous. It’s dark fantasy, but dark fantasy that isn’t literally so dark that we can’t see. It doesn’t have the sweep of Lord of the Rings, but the CGI is better (as it should be after 15 years, but what fantasy movie surpassed LOTR in the interim?). It has the best revenge scene since The Princess Bride. There are some really tremendous set pieces. Ritchie tends to get a little manic, but he knows how to cut a fight scene. And that score! Oh my God, that score. I’ve never heard anything like it and it’s bloody perfect in every way.
The bottom line is that this is a damn good movie. It’s also the sort of movie that you absolutely owe it to yourself to go see in the theater.
4.5 of 5 Stars.