Hollywood must constantly reinvent old yarns to make them relevant for contemporary audiences. “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” director Guy Ritchie embraces this strategy with his spectacular, $175-million, sword & sorcery saga “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (**** OUT OF ****), starring “Sons of Anarchy’s” Charlie Hunnam as the title character. Unmistakably inspired by the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones,” Ritchie and scenarists Joby Harold of “Awake” and Lionel Wigram of “Sherlock Holmes,” adapting a story by Harold and “Jack the Giant Slayer’s” David Dobkin, have appropriated the venerable legend and accentuated its far-fetched fantasy elements. If you’re expecting either a rehash of John Boorman’s splendid “Excalibur” (1981) or Antoine Fuqua’s “King Arthur” (2004) with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, the provocative departures Ritchie and company have taken may alienate you. Anybody expecting Ritchie’s “King Arthur” will stick to the legends may feel disgruntled by this two-hour plus, PG-13 swashbuckler. Since its release, “King Arthur” has proven not what most audiences either sought or expected, and the Warner Brothers release has been branded a disaster considering its miserable $15-million opening. Nevertheless, “King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword” qualifies as a terrific tale with stupendous CGI and ranks as the best version of the myth to grace screens since “Excalibur.” Mind you, “King Arthur” concerns itself more with the eponymous hero’s revenge against his repellent uncle than a romantic escapade like the Sean Connery & Richard Gere version “First Knight” (1995) where the two fought over Guinevere. At the same time, “King Arthur” utilizes the familiar tropes of most Arthurian epics, but deploys them in ways both unusual and refreshing.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” opens with a prologue which states that mage (magicians) and man no longer live in harmony. The wicked warlock Mordred (Rob Knighton of “All Things to Men”) storms Uther Pendragon’s (Eric Bana of “Hulk”) kingdom with three gargantuan pachyderms—bigger than any you’ve seen–to destroy it. These pachyderms have wrecking balls attached to their trunks, and they shatter the stone masonry as if it were made from papier mâché. These rampaging beasts smash Camelot’s walls until Uther clambers aboard Mordred’s elephant and apparently decapitates the malevolent mage. Temporarily, order appears restored, until Uther’s deceitful brother, Vortigern (Jude Law of “Gattaca”), forfeits his wife Elsa (Katie McGrath) to three evil sea-witches equipped with the tentacles of an octopus. He sacrifices Elsa so he can conjure up the Demon Knight to kill not only Uther, but also his wife in a larger-than-life clash. The Demon Knight resembles those armor-clad behemoths that artist Frank Frazetta once created for the classic Molly Hatchet album covers in the 1970s. Uther wields Excalibur against the enormous Demon Knight, but this monstrous fiend overwhelms him. Before he dies, Uther orders young Arthur to flee. Afterward, Uther hurls Excalibur aloft so that the sword turns somersaults in the air. As he falls to his knees, Uther turns into a stone, and Excalibur impales itself to the hilt between Uther’s shoulder blades. Vortigern sloughs off the Demon Knight form he took on in the fight and watches as his elder brother—now a huge rock–plunges into the bay with Excalibur sticking out of the rock. Meantime, Uther’s infant son Arthur is swept down river in a boat like the infant Moses and compassionate prostitutes take him in and raise the lad as if he belonged to them.
At this point, Vortigern has practiced enough black magic to make himself invincible until he learns that Excalibur has reappeared. One day, the waters of the bay where Uther vanished with the sword in his back recede. Vortigern assembles young Englishman by the hundreds and ships them to the bay to see who can extract the sword from the stone. Eventually, Vortigern’s dastardly henchmen capture Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) and he finds himself in front of Excalibur with no hope of pulling it out. Incredibly, Arthur draws the sword from the stone, but the sword delivers such a jolt to his system that our legendary hero drops it and collapses into an unconscious heap. Later, Vortigern converses privately with Arthur, and Arthur assures him he has no wish to wear a crown. Nevertheless, Vortigern plans to execute him in public. Happily, a miracle appears in the form of an anonymous Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey of “Julliette”) dispatched by Merlin. She visits one of Uther’s former knights, Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou of “Amistad”), and explains that his men and he must intervene before Vortigern can behead Arthur. The next time we see Arthur, he is kneeling at an altar awaiting the executioner’s pleasure. The Mage conjures up supernatural elements that paralyze Vortigern, sends his knights scrambling to save him, while Bedivere’s men rescue Arthur. Afterward, “King Arthur” depicts our hero’s reluctance not only to take up Excalibur, but also to wield it to avenge the cold-blooded murder of his mother and father.
Charlie Hunnam makes a charismatic Arthur. Indeed, compared with previous Arthurs, Hunnam could be hailed as ‘the man who didn’t want to be king,’ such is his reluctance to brandish Excalibur and solidify England against its adversaries both within and without the kingdom. Director Guy Ritchie surrounds Hunnam with a thoroughly convincing cast, among them “Game of Thrones’” own Aidan Gillen. If you’ve seen either of Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” thrillers, you will savor his snappy editing style and the amusing way that he condenses expository dialogue sequences. At one point, the Mage sends our hero into the Dark Lands to learn about his past. Indeed, Arthur’s past haunts him. Eventually, he musters enough nerve from the experience to confront his treacherous uncle. As the diabolical Vortigern, Jude Law indulges himself with an evil gleam in his eye, and his ominous henchmen in black armor are just as unsavory. Despite its two-hour plus running time, “King Arthur” maintains its momentum, and Ritchie orchestrates some truly impressive battle sequences with computer generated imagery that enhances the larger-than-life spectacle.