"KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD" — 3 stars — Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana; PG-13 (sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language); in general release
There have been a lot of cinematic takes on the Arthur legend over the years, but if director Guy Ritchie deserves any credit for "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," it is for making the legend all his own.
We start things off with a dramatic prologue that shows Arthur's father Uther (Eric Bana) using the mighty Excalibur to fend off the supernatural forces of an evil sorcerer. As the various knights battle 50-foot elephants and dodge fireballs, it's clear that Ritchie isn't gunning for perfect historical accuracy.
No sooner does Uther save the kingdom than his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) steps up to wrest it away from him. In the chaos, young Arthur is relocated to a seedy London brothel, where he is raised — shown in in a series of flash cuts over the opening credits — until we land in Arthur's adulthood (where he is played by Charlie Hunnam). Vortigern has been ruling England with an illegitimate iron fist, secretly benefitting from a deal-with-the-devil arrangement with a creepy trio of sirens that are able to bestow magic powers on him.
It's about here that the murky waters around Vortigern's castle suddenly recede, revealing the long-lost Excalibur buried in a prominent stone. Rumors and legends have already abounded concerning the sword and the rightful king who alone can withdraw it, and most anyone remotely familiar with the Arthurian legend will know where things are going from here.
In that sense, "Legend of the Sword" isn't so much about its plot's destination so much as how Ritchie gets us there. "Legend of the Sword" is Arthur's origin story, watching the king rise from the slums to inherit his throne alongside a ragtag crew (including familiar faces like Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen) that will eventually become the Knights of the Round Table.
Ritchie has never shied away from applying his distinct style to historical subjects — his Sherlock Holmes movies being the most obvious example — and unsuspecting audiences may be surprised to see his liberal 21st-century take on the Middle Ages.
Aside from flashes of quick, stylish editing to connect the more drawn-out scenes with high-speed summaries and montages, Ritchie's characters use banter and wit — and occasionally language — that would feel more at home in 21st-century London than its Dark Ages equivalent.
Still, Ritchie wisely never allows his style to overtake his substance, and the result is a fun and furious sword-slashing flick that plants one foot in fantasy and the other in murky European history. At times, "Legend of the Sword" feels like the origin story of a long-lost Middle Ages comic book superhero, especially when Arthur uses Excalibur to wipe out scores of unsuspecting bad guys.
The supernatural element is heavy in this one, and though the classic Merlin is largely confined to hearsay, his presence is felt through another gifted mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) who uses her powers on behalf of Arthur and his company.
Hunnam's Arthur feels every bit the Ritchie-style equivalent to Robert Downey Jr.'s lithe boxing enthusiast take on Sherlock Holmes. He's a young, slick and fast-talking future king, though strangely, Arthur doesn't have much in terms of a love interest. (Maybe Guinevere is being saved for the sequel?)
Purist devotees of Arthurian legend may not be too crazy on this stylish, audience-friendly take on the famous king, but "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" should provide solid swashbuckling entertainment value for summer audiences of 2017.
"King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language; running time: 126 minutes.