The Legends of King Arthur Pendragon date back to the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD. Whether or not he was a real person, or just legend, is still debated. According to the stories, he’s most known for pulling his father’s sword Excalibur from the stone, battling the Saxons, assembling the Knights of the Round Table, and searching for the Holy Grail, which of course was perfectly conveyed in the Monty Python story, which I am sure was mostly historically accurate.
The most recent film version was Antoine Fuqua’s version in 2004 which removed all the magic from the story and was based heavily in leftover Roman Empire legends. The action was good, but the magic is so key to all the legends that this one felt a little static.
My personal favorite was the TV movie Merlin starring Sam Neil that really had Arthur as more of a side character, but leaned heavily on the magic side of the legends.
In this most recent edition particular version, the whole story is ‘Guy Ritchie-d’ up. We start the story with Uther battling Mordred, who has broken from Merlin and the other Mages to unleash darkness on the land. Uther defeats him thanks to his mastery of the magic of the sword Excalibur, but his brother Vortigern decides he’s ready to usurp the throne and calls on his own dark magic and sea monster/witches for assistance. Uther ushers his wife and child out of the castle and she falls, but the child lives. He battles Uther, and at the end of the battle, Uther ensures that Excalibur will be trapped in stone until his rightful heir, the ‘born-king’ comes back to claim it. Meanwhile, little Arthur floats, Moses-Style, down the Thames to Londinum, the ancient Roman outpost that will eventually become London.
There, he goes through an aging montage that shows us he becomes essentially a Guy Ritchie-style street tough as he is raised in a brothel. He goes from being cared for by prostitutes to caring for prostitutes, all the while, accumulating quite a fortune and a running crew, including Tristan and Backlack. Inevitably, a group of Vikings mistreat one of the prostitutes, so Arthur and crew have a ‘word’ with the Vikings. Word gets back to now-King Vortigern, who is also having all ‘men of a certain age’ tested by trying to pull the sword from the stone. Arthur gets arrested by the ‘black legs’ (Vortigern’s men) and taken to pull on the sword, where David Beckham yells at him. Shocking everyone, David Beckham most of all, Arthur pulls the sword.
This pisses off Vortigern, and he’s determined to kill Arthur in front of everyone to prevent him from gaining support of the people. Well, that plan goes awry as Arthur is rescued by what’s left of Uther’s crew and a random Mage. Eventually Arthur’s running crew meets up with the remains of Uther’s old crew, and together they begin to stage a few ambushes here and there to begin to take down Vortigern as Arthur first struggles with, then comes to accept Excalibur and the responsibilities that come with it. Spoiler alert – in the end he defeats his uncle, takes back the throne, builds a round table, knights some guys, and swears to bring honor, justice, and chivalry back to the kingdom.
The movie is very much a Guy Ritchie movie, and I think that is a good thing. I’ve been a fan of his since Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and honestly – this feels like a medieval Lock, Stock. The very cockney and modernized version of Arthur is going to not resonate with a lot of folks, but I found it entertaining. The movie looks lovely, the sets are amazing, and I enjoyed the foot chases and fights through ancient London. Yes, there’s a lot of CG in terms of magical beasts and what-not, that didn’t bother me too much, and seemed to fit the story. Yes, it’s probably a bit too long, and a little sluggish in parts, but since I was expecting it to be terrible, I was able to tolerate that. The cast is decent and filled out by a charming supporting group of characters.
- Charlie Hunnam is actually better in this than I have seen him in anything else. Since I didn’t watch Sons of Anarchy, that list is really just Pacific Rim, and he was terrible in that – so I guess it’s not a huge achievement, but I enjoyed his rough and tumble version of a grumpy Arthur who is more concerned about his friends and family than his overwhelming destiny.
- Astrid Berges-Frisbey plays The Mage with no name (there are some articles and cast listings where she is listed as 'Guenivere' but she's never called that in the movie), and she is okay, but a little one-note. There’s no Merlin in this story at all, which I suppose is fine. She does a pretty good job of helping Arthur, but seeming to be annoyed about the entire situation.
- Jude Law chews all the scenery as Vortigern, and that was very entertaining. He’s a pretty great villain and should do that more often. He’s familiar enough with Ritchie’s style thanks to his two outings as Watson in the updated Sherlock Holmes.
- Djimon Hounsou plays Bedivere, and essentially it’s the same role you’ve seen him play multiple times before. He’s the old, wise, warrior who is ready to help Arthur step up to his destiny. He is excellent at this role, so I’m not complaining.
- Eric Bana shows up briefly as Uther, and does some impressive sword fighting before locking up that sword in a stone.
- Aidan Gillen plays Bill – a leftover from Uther’s group who first gets Arthur aware of the issues happening at large, since he was mainly paying attention to his own affairs. Thanks to all the GOT experience, he’s just fine in this medieval flick, and gets to take some awesome arrow shots.
- Freddie Fox plays Rubio, another member of the gang who helps Arthur begin to get his kingdom back.
- Craig McGinlay plays Percival, who at first seems a bit skeptical of Arthur, but then is won over.
- Tom Wu gets to keep his Marco Polo hairstyle, and basically the exact same character, as ‘kung-fu’ George, one of Arthur’s London friends who steps up to help him once his destiny comes calling.
- Kingsley Ben-Adir plays WetStick (Tristan), and sticks by Arthur’s side throughout everything long enough to be knighted by the end.
- Neil Maskell plays Back Lack, and along with his son, Blue, are a part of Arthur’s London crew.
The movie is not great, and it’s not doing all that well, which is a shame, because this really functions as an origin story, and I would like to see further adventures of the group of knights that is assembled around the round table by the end of this. Who knows, perhaps it will do better globally and we’ll get a sequel anyway?
6 out of 10 – Bonus points for the random knights, and here’s hoping we get more from them. More bonus points for the Guy Ritchie cameo - it's quick, keep your eyes peeled.