Generic sword & sorcery fantasy wrapped in pseudo-Arthurian legend, Guy Ritchie’s ill-conceived, atonal “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a frustrating and incoherent mess with the occasional flash of brilliance. Granted, it couldn’t have been worse; if it had been, that would have made it more fun.
This story is a drastic re-imagining of Arthur’s origins, which is fine and arguably necessary given how exhaustively the character has been covered in media. Unfortunately, Ritchie and co-writers Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold’s choices skew so heavily towards edgy over all else that their take never feels very Arthurian. Arthur-y. Arthur-esque. Whatever.
This version stars Charlie Hunnam (in a comedown from the recent, excellent “The Lost City of Z”) as the man destined to be King of England, here posited as a Moses-style orphan who comes of age in a Londinium brothel, grows up to become a fixer and street tough, and is unwillingly thrust into political turmoil to become the umpteenth White Guy with Destiny.
Art is, of course, the offspring of late King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who was betrayed and slain by his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), who with whom he had fought a war against evil wizards led by Mordred (Rob Knighton). Vortigern sits uneasily upon the throne, well aware that there’s a sword in a stone waiting for the rightful king to wield it against him.
Others are aware of this, too: Uther’s loyal subordinates Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), Vortigern’s aide/handmaiden/concubine – it’s never explained who she is or why we should care – Maggie (Annabelle Wallis), and a creepy young sorceress known only as the Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), lead Arthur and his Ritchiean band of roguish lads by the hand to the movie’s climax – er, destiny. Cliched melodrama, bad CGI, and overblown-yet-uninspired action sequences ensue.
It’s all an utter crock, made more insufferable by Ritchie’s modernistic go-to moves that just don’t mesh with the material. He is as utterly and completely unsuited for the material as Baz Luhrmann was for “The Great Gatsby” or Zack Snyder is for much of anything.
Ritchie’s rat-a-tat-tat meta-dialogue and twitchy editing only work in small doses with the right material, and it quickly grows tiresome and distracting here. The wink-wink self-awareness, self-referencing, and heist movie shtick make you wonder if reels from another movie were spliced in by accident.
The climax is punctuated by a CGI-soaked battle between Arthur and a swole, magically mutated Vortigern in which the camera is in such constant motion that it resembles nothing more than an uninspired boss fight from a bargain bin video game.
Which is a bummer, because there are moments where the movie makes some truly weird, fresh, off-kilter, and sometimes even batshit crazy choices that show some true creativity. Berges-Frisbey’s accent and strange line delivery lend her character a necessary air of otherworldliness; there is a kooky snake motif throughout that pays off in the final reel; and whatever the hell that tentacled mermaid triplets thing is hanging out in Vortigern’s is genuinely messed-up and disturbing – and utterly cool.
The real kicker is that “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is intended as the first in a series of several films; it’s hard to imagine that happening now, though one almost wishes it would just to see if the series gets so bad that it actually becomes entertaining.