The world doesn't really need another retelling of Arthurian legend. But if we've got no choice in the matter, at least this one offers a scrappy, street-level epic seen through the hyperactive eyes of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" director Guy Ritchie. At least that's what I attempted to tell myself before heading into "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword." I mean, a medieval adventure by way of a London crime flick sounds pretty fun, and the film's marketing looked nutty enough that I figured if nothing else, it wouldn't be boring.
For a time, it seemed the film may deliver on its potential. It begins with a prologue showing us how King Uther (Eric Bana) waged war against the forces of the evil wizard Mordred, only to be betrayed by his power-hungry brother, Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern stages a bloody coup, which Uther's young son, Arthur, alone survives when the king sends him off down the river, Moses-style. From there, we get a fast-paced montage -- which is actually a lot of fun -- of Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) growing up on the streets. But in short order, Ritchie's trademark rough-and-tumble style is abandoned, leaving us with a distressingly generic, straightforward King Arthur origin story. Ritchie takes some liberties with the legend, but hits the major beats: Excalibur, Lady in the Lake, Round Table, blah blah blah. With nothing else to distinguish the story, it all feels rather rote.
Once Arthur's true lineage is revealed, he's drafted into a rag-tag band of rebels led by Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen, who recruit him to be the leader of their would-be revolution to take back the kingdom. These side characters get nicknames like Goosefat Bill and Kung-Fu George, but silly names aside, none of them register. Not even the lone female of any significance: a mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), who feels like the writers' attempt to balance out the fact that almost every other woman on screen is there only to be used as a bargaining chip and/or sacrificed to make one of the male characters feel sad.
Hunnam makes for a bland (though very pretty) hero; the actor can be great in the right role, but he continues to struggle to find parts that capitalize on his talents. He was quite good in "The Lost City of Z," but here he gets lost amid the chaos. As Vortigern, Jude Law gets to chew scenery, even if he lets his guyliner do most of the heavy lifting.
The film has its inventive touches -- Vortigern's counsel of slimy, Ursula-esque sea witches is pretty nifty, but thanks to the film's murky CGI and incomprehensibly-edited action sequences, nothing has any weight. Vortigern even transforms into a computer-generated Frank Frazetta illustration in battle, an artistic choice that deprives us of any flesh-and-blood sword fighting.
Warner Brothers hoped "Legend of the Sword" would kick-start a Ritchie-helmed, six-film King Arthur franchise, but the movie's deadly opening weekend box office suggests that might not be in the cards. Based on the film we got, it's for the best that those next chapters remain unwritten. On the plus side, now the director has more time to make that "Man From U.N.C.L.E." sequel.