The legend of King Arthur is the genesis of the English monarchy and a tale as old as the language itself. It’s also been given regular tweaks and updates throughout the centuries as everyone from Mark Twain to Walt Disney to Monty Python have taken a stab at it. (“On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.”)
So, why not Guy Ritchie? The stylish director of gritty crime dramas and the Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock Holmes” reboot gets down and dirty as he envisions Arthur as a streetwise cockney bruiser resistant of his noble calling. There are also some giant elephants and a few vision quests thrown in for good measure.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a nutty, disjointed movie that nearly gets pulled off thanks mostly to Ritchie’s frenetic energy and the charisma of star Charlie Hunnam.
Unfortunately, aside from Hunnam and Jude Law (who plays Arthur’s evil uncle King Vortigern), the other characters are underwritten and forgettable to the point it makes the movie feel more than a little top-heavy.
Arthur is orphaned and set adrift Moses-style when his father, King Uther (Eric Bana), is killed by Vortigern in a power-grab for the throne.
Arthur is found by some kindly prostitutes and is raised in a brothel where he learns how to conduct himself on the unforgiving streets of “Londinium” (growing up in a cool, vintage-Ritchie montage).
Vortigern is a pretty crummy king and the people long for a change, which is why it becomes problematic when Uther’s magic-infused sword Excalibur is discovered buried in a stone where only his rightful heir can pull it free.
You’ve heard this part before and, while we all know how it is going to play out, Ritchie does give us some slick visuals to enjoy along the well-traveled way.
Arthur and his cohorts take on an almost Robin-Hood-style guerrilla resistance as Arthur bides his time and consolidates his power before leading up to an epic, final showdown.
Where Ritchie gets tripped up is he can never settle on a tone. Is he making a stripped-down, bare-knuckle action flick, or is he making a soaring wizards-and-warrior fantasy epic? It’s a mashup that never really gels and while the movie mostly gets by on guts, determination, and a couple of killer, action-set-pieces, there is ultimately nothing here to really hang your hat on.
The legend will certainly live to fight another day, but this version of King Arthur is sadly destined to be forgotten.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content, and brief, strong language.