King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is as unwieldy as its title

Dull blade.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

2 out of 5 stars

Directed by Guy Ritchie.

Starring Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou and Eric Bana

Opens everywhere May 12.

click to enlarge Charlie Hunnam sizes up Excalibur in Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword - Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers
Charlie Hunnam sizes up Excalibur in Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

When writer Marion Zimmer Bradley took it upon herself to flesh out one specific aspect of Arthurian legend 35 years ago, she settled on the character of Morgan le Fay.

Morgan has often been rendered as a femme fatale and antagonist of Arthur, if she's rendered at all, but Bradley reworks the legend into a story of matriarchal paganism defending itself against rigid, patriarchal Christianity.

The epigraph at the beginning of Bradley's 1982 The Mists of Avalon is from Thomas Malory's watershed fifteenth-century work Le Morte d'Arthur, the rootstock of modern Arthurian legend. It says, simply, "...Morgan le Fay was not married, but put to school in a nunnery, where she became a great mistress of magic."

Bradley centers her women — Guinevere, Morgan, and Viviane — by writing an entire book to illuminate their lives. Malory elides the training of a "great mistress of magic;" Bradley finds vivid sensual life in it.

All this is to say that in Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Morgan le Fay is never once called by her name. She is simply "the mage," even in the film's credits, no more distinct than a Dungeons & Dragons class. Marketing materials state that "the mage" is actually supposed to be Guinevere, which is even less intuitive given her role in the movie. That means Morgan, the protagonist of one of the richest Arthurian narratives ever written, doesn't exist here at all, and for her part, Guinevere is not even named.

Ritchie, director of a script he co-wrote with collaborator Lionel Wigram and producer Joby Harold, is so far not interested in the nitty-gritty of Arthurian legend. There's an Uther, a Merlin (barely glimpsed), and a Lady of the Lake, but the meat of the film concerns one long, hard sword named Excalibur and the big, veiny man who grips it.

In the film's best sequence, an extended, mournful (well, as mournful as anything with gigantic siege elephants can be) prologue, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam ) watches a skull-faced demon murder his father Uther (Eric Bana). Two of the film's five female characters die during the prologue. Only one survives the movie. Anyway, lads, Arthur grows up in a London brothel, which affords Ritchie the opportunity to do some ill-fitting Gangster Banter among Arthur and his disreputable chums.

Meanwhile, at Camelot, King Vortigern (Jude Law) is living the life after usurping Uther's throne and sacrificing his wife to the slimy octopoid witches living below his magic tower for the power to turn into a skull-faced demon. But one day the water drains from the bay around Camelot to reveal a sword, stuck in a stone. The plot contrives to get Arthur in a spot to pull it out. You can probably take the summary from here.

Aside from a few outre touches, like "the stone" actually being Uther's ossified corpse, Ritchie and co. have made a straightforward origin story. No one offered Ritchie a superhero movie, so he said fuck it and made one himself. It wavers drunkenly between endless Ritchie-core planning/execution montages and brutal po-faced hero's journey bullshit, laden with clunky LARPer lines like, "You're playing with fire, mage, and I'm not killing the king before he's even become one!"

Charisma void Charlie Hunnam is nice to look at in the few instances he goes shirtless, but otherwise, it's difficult to imagine anyone rallying behind the asshole. A couple Game of Thrones players show up, notably Aiden Gillen, who simply dials his scenery-chewing Littlefinger back one notch. Ritchie gradually loses control of the bloodless fight scenes (John Boorman's 1981 Excalibur this is sadly not), which are heavy on speed ramping, CG, and yelling. The nadir is a bizarre, incomprehensible climactic duel that completely whiffs on a big emotional payoff as well as on the more functional level of "what am I looking at here?" 

The film's saving grace is Jude Law, who plays Vortigern (a minor figure in modern Arthurian myth, possibly drawn from history) as a sullen, goth version of his Lenny Belardo from HBO's The Young Pope. Petulant, self-absorbed and grandiose, his speeches about the intoxication of being feared by your subjects could have come straight from Lenny's mouth. At one point the film notes without irony that a mage's power is directly correlated with the size of their tower, which should sum up the complexity at play here. In the dominant tradition of Arthurian legend, perhaps, this is a cock-heavy movie, all pained masculinity and phallic imagery.

Like every franchise movie — six of these are planned, by the way — from Star Trek: Into Darkness to Fantastic Four, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword ends on a would-be, crowd-pleasing moment where all the pieces arrange themselves into the expected shape. The roundtable appears and the knights are named; Arthur becomes king. There's something charmingly stupid about the notion that all it takes to turn out a new spin on a story that dates back to the Middle Ages is a handful of montages, but the charm wears off fast.

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