In the opening sequence of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, we are presented with a castle under attack from demon elephants the size of large buildings swinging wrecking balls with their trunks and carrying entire armies on their backs. We learn that Mordred is not Arthur’s bastard son. He is, instead, the leader of the forces besieging King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). When things go bad for Uther (sorry, I guess I spoiled the first 5 minutes), young Arthur is put on a boat and sent downriver, where he is found by a group of prostitutes and raised in a bordello in the city of Londinium. In the montage of Arthur growing to manhood, we learn that he is trained to fight in a Chinese dojo run by Kung-Fu George (Tom Wu). I didn’t make that up.
It became clear very quickly that this movie had nothing whatsoever to do with Arthurian legend, nor did it give two figs about historical plausibility, let alone accuracy. This movie was about some dude who happened to be named Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) running around in an alternate universe with a sword that happened to be named Excalibur. Within 10 minutes, I realized I was watching a cheesy 80s era sword and sorcery movie with a high budget and a great sound track. (Not necessarily a bad thing.)
Arthur seemed content to remain a mixed martial arts pitfighter/brothel bouncer, but after he roughed up some Vikings that happened to be under the protection of the King, an improbable sequence of events led to him fighting with the resistance.
To aid the plucky resistance, Merlin sent his assistant, The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). I guess Merlin didn’t come himself because he had something more important to do than prevent an evil dictator from plunging the entire country into darkness. The Mage is the only name she’s given, by the way. Is she supposed to be Guinevere? Morgan Le Fey? Who knows. In this movie, she’s The Mage. Fortunately for the resistance, The Mage was skilled at reaching into her butt and pulling out whatever was needed at any given moment to advance the plot.
Whatever the problem, she could summon or control an animal to deal with it. She seemed to particularly like snakes and birds. She even used a bird to deliver a snake.
At one point, with no foreshadowing and for no apparent reason, she sent Arthur into the Darklands, which appeared to be a parallel dimension populated with giant, hostile animals. Arthur chose to beat them with sticks despite having a perfectly good sword handy. The mission was to touch Excalibur to a stone in the middle of the Darklands so that he could have the same flashback he’d been having since the movie started. Then he left, and the Darklands were spoken of no more.
Eventually, Excalibur’s full power was unleashed, and it turned out to be not so much a magic sword as a mystic talisman giving Arthur superpowers. As The Mage manifested more and more of her power, I started scratching my head and wondering why Arthur and The Mage didn’t just walk up to the castle, kill all the bad guys, and be done with it. Those two could have easily defeated the entire villain army. Either one could have probably done it singlehandedly. But for some inexplicable reason, they kept running away from soldiers long after their power was revealed, and several people died needlessly because of it. Seriously, if The Mage had started off with what she saved for the end, the movie could have been about 40 minutes long.
The film’s biggest problem, however, was the complete lack of tension. It was hard to become invested in the supporting characters enough to care much about them, and it was clear that Arthur would have to deliberately impale himself in order to fail.
On a positive note, it was a visually stunning film. The sets were very well done. The costumes were drawn from an odd mishmash of time periods but were nevertheless impressive to look at. The film used an immense amount of CGI, but it was very well executed. Films with a lot of CGI can easily begin to look cartoonish, but that was not the case here.
The sound track was probably the strongest element. The music conveyed the mood on a visceral level that was far more effective than the story or visuals.
In the end, this wasn’t a bad film so much as a weird and cheesy one. For those raised on 80s science fiction and fantasy, it pressed the nostalgia button. (Probably unintentionally.) It’s another in the category of movies that would be fun to watch at home with a bunch of drunk friends. Invite them over for Notte di Formaggio and show this on a double or triple bill with The Sword and the Sorcerer, Hawk the Slayer, or The Beastmaster.
Overall rating: 4.5/10 (Could reach an enjoyment level of 7-8 with rowdy friends and copious quantities of refreshing beverage.)