Early on in his career, Guy Ritchie took rough-and-tumble streetwise hoodlums and elevated them to hero status. Now, he does the opposite, taking high-class literary heroes — first Sherlock Holmes and now King Arthur — and plunging them down to gutter level. The idea, one supposes, is to make these lofty cultural icons into relatable underdogs, but the effect is akin to slander. If there ever had been a real Sherlock or Arthur, they would surely be horrified to see themselves depicted as such commonplace thugs.
In Ritchie’s over-the-top, rock-and-roll “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” the less you know about the legend in question, the better. The brash British director has thrown out nearly all preexisting Athurian notions and come up with a smoking new riff on the famous sword-in-the-stone tale that makes “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” look like a work of rigorous historical scholarship by comparison.
It’s epic, in the sense that it features elaborate CG backdrops swarming with thousands of virtual extras, and it’s extravagant, to the extent that Warner Bros. flushed away millions of dollars to produce this gaudy eyesore. But ultimately, “King Arthur” is just a loud, obnoxious parade of flashy set pieces, as one visually busy, belligerent action scene after another marches by, each making less sense than the last, but all intended to overwhelm. That technique has served Richie well before — a sort of slick back-alley magic by which he distracts our attention in one direction, only to pull off something wondrous and surprising in the other, much to the audience’s collective amazement. But in this case, the approach largely backfires, as attempts to dazzle with giant elephants, a scenery-chewing Jude Law, and an occasionally shirtless stud king (played by well-cast, but otherwise squandered “The Lost City of Z” star Charlie Hunnam) leaves us more confused than awestruck.
Lumped together with a small militia of rebel soldiers, some random Vikings and a mighty French sorceress (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, sexier than Merlin, yet still powerful enough to summon birds and snakes to do her bidding), these elements constitute an entirely new take on the man who wielded Excalibur — one that isn’t remotely coherent, mind you, but intends to serve as a revisionist origin story all the same. Ritchie wants to set up a new King Arthur legend that, were it to catch on, might actually generate a sequel or two down the road (and who’s to say it won’t, when last year’s comparably ill-conceived “The Legend of Tarzan” managed to avert disaster with its still-disappointing $357 million worldwide haul?). And yet, there seems to be no small amount of confusion about the word “legend” at Warner Bros. these days, as their approach to such icons seems to be, “You think you know [insert King Arthur-scale hero here]? Well, think again!”
Ritchie and co-writers Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold (who initially sold the studio on an expansive, multi-film series) seem to have confused King Arthur with Robin Hood, re-imagining England’s chivalrous first knight as some sort of rabble-rousing proto-gangster, backed by a crew of cutthroat forest dwellers (archers, mostly) eager to stand up to the despot king Vortigern (Law), who killed Arthur’s father (Eric Bana) and seized the throne. The script also boasts a bizarre fantasy dimension, as well as peculiar aspects of the Christ story, as the challenge to pull the sword from the stone is treated less like a contest than some sort of deadly trial, forced upon every Brit of a certain age, where the winner — he who can pry Excalibur from its rocky scabbard — will be swiftly executed (much as insecure King Herod massacred countless innocents to thwart the prophecy that a newborn Jew would rise to take his throne).
After playing the straight man to Robert Downey Jr.’s borderline-unhinged Sherlock Holmes in two Ritchie-directed blockbusters, Law seems to relish getting to let loose here, and his villainous Vortigern has all the gristle of a high-camp performance. But Ritchie’s overwrought sense of flamboyance isn’t nearly queer enough to achieve “so bad it’s good” self-parody. Rather, he comes across as an aging rebel worried about being judged un-hip, clearly over-compensating in order to remain one step ahead of fellow stylists Zack Snyder (“300”), Tarsem Singh (“Mirror Mirror”), and Alex Proyas (“Gods of Egypt”) — all of whose genuinely outrageous, inadvertently awful work appears to be a source of inspiration here.
Collectively, these directors have reached a point where their films run the risk of collapsing under the weight of their own production design, especially since Hollywood no longer makes stars big enough to compete with the environments that surround them. (Have you noticed: Even Trump looks tiny when photographed at Mar Lago?)
At least Hunnam has the potential to be the next Brad Pitt, having begun his career in a series of demanding acting roles — including a long run on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” — before making the transition to blockbuster screen idol. He’s got presence, along with a sense of vulnerability that’s essential to the Arthur role, in which he plays a true-blood prince, orphaned by his uncle, raised in a brothel, educated on the streets, and thrust into the unlikely position of saving the kingdom.
But Hunnam’s competing with so much ridiculous window-dressing here. It’s as if Ritchie, who began his career with the rowdy follow-that-shotgun caper “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” has once again tried to build an entire movie around the whereabouts of a rare weapon, when the legend of the sword isn’t nearly as interesting as that of the man who wields it.