Guy Ritchie’s knights of the Round Table origin story, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is two-plus hours of sorcery, swashbuckling, and supersize CG snakes and swamp rats. Somewhere in all of this there’s a good movie trying to get out. The impulse to reimagine the tale of Excalibur isn’t a bad one. There’s still a lot of narrative meat to gnaw on that drumstick (action, adventure, chivalry, etc.). But Hollywood only knows how to dream big right now, when the truth is, the best moments in this film are the smaller ones — the scheming and snap-crackle-pop wordplay among its gallery of medieval rogues. It’s the same franchise quicksand that Ritchie stepped into with his Sherlock Holmes reboot back in 2009, when mental gymnastics were upstaged by razzle-dazzle bare-knuckle brawls. Now he’s just sinking deeper. Someone needs to throw him a line.
When the movie opens, Arthur is a young boy who witnesses the murder of his father, King Uther (Eric Bana), at the hands of his power-hungry uncle Vortigern (Jude Law, sniveling in fascist black leather and chain mail). Arthur goes into hiding and is raised by kindly prostitutes on the streets of ancient London, where he learns to use both his fists and his wits while growing up to become Charlie Hunnam — which is to say, haunted and cocky with zero-percent body fat and snug leather pants. He’s forced, as all men in the kingdom are, to try to pull Uther’s stubborn and mystical sword from a stone. When he touches its hilt, he’s zapped by white light. The music on the soundtrack swells. The earth shakes. Dogs bark and horses rear up. Excalibur is meant for him. A hero, albeit a reluctant one, is born.
As Law’s Vortigern snarls about how he wants this threat to his black-magic reign dead, Arthur saddles up with a group of rebels (and one pouty, catwalk-ready mage, played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) to bring Vortigern down. It’s here that the film briefly sparks to life, as Arthur’s grifting, wisecracking cronies (with colorful names like Goosefat Bill) hatch their throne-toppling scheme in thick Cockney accents reminiscent of Ritchie’s East London street toughs from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. They’re rascals you want to spend some hang time with. But the film never allows you to. There are too many phony-looking special-effects sequences of giant marauding elephants and magical eel creatures to get to. It doesn’t matter if they don’t help the story; what seems to matter is that Ritchie had enough money at his disposal to conjure them, so why not spend it? Hunnam and his charismatic band of merry pranksters get lost in the sea of pixels. Which is a shame. Because King Arthur could have been a rollicking blast. Instead it’s just another wannabe blockbuster with too much flash and not enough soul. C+