Yes, it’s clear that Arthur is trying to rise up against Vortigern and topple his evil empire, but good luck making sense of how they’re trying to do that. Yes, we know that this two-hour team-building montage will end with our hero’s friends being anointed as the Knights of the Round Table, but good luck remembering their names. Or their faces. Or their anything. Yes, we know what it means when the moat around Vortigern’s castle recedes to reveal a sword jutting out from a stone, but good luck figuring out what it means to these characters, or why the improbably well-coiffed soldier guarding the legendary weapon is played by David Beckham.
Ritchie and his writers, bored silly of the boilerplate epic they’ve scripted for themselves, choose to obfuscate its telling rather than write their way out of the tedium. This happens a lot in this post-“Iron Man” world where Hollywood defaults to superhero origin stories whenever they’re trying to exhume an old brand into a new franchise; desperate to engineer a fresh sense of discovery, “King Arthur” essentially plays a game of three-card monty with the most famous parts of its legend, as if watching these characters stumble towards their destinies will inherently make it more rewarding for us to see them get there. Don’t call the sword Excalibur, because none of these people know what that means yet. Don’t give Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s female lead a name (or a purpose), because that might tip us off. It’s bad enough that this movie almost ends with someone saying the words “King Arthur” for the first time; it’s even worse that it actually ends with a top-down shot of a half-built round table (and someone musing that it looks like a wheel of cheese).
Of course, all of these things would be easy enough to forgive if the film were any fun, but Ritchie doesn’t wrest much entertainment value from this age-old premise. To his credit, “King Arthur” is at its best when the director asserts himself; his fingerprints are all over the spirited heist-like sequences in which a character narrates their plans while we see the results of their scheme play out in hyper-speed (Ritchie overuses the gimmick, but it always delivers a nice kick). Likewise, Ritchie naturally aces the bawdy bro code that galvanizes Londinium’s criminal underworld, his signature bellicosity translating well to the dark ages, and the chatty scenes between Arthur and his boys are as fun as they are fruitless.
If anything, the movie could have used more of an auteurist touch, more of the go-for-broke stylishness that recently allowed Ritchie to inject so much life into his under-appreciated “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” reboot. But that movie had Armie Hammer facing off with Elizabeth Debicki. This movie has Charlie Hunnam fighting against bad studio notes. The actor exudes more flinty-eyed charm here than he has in any of his previous blockbusters, but his blandness is still a stumbling block, and his character doesn’t exactly endear himself with his Trump-like regrets about his new responsibilities (“I thought leading a revolution against that evil wizard would be easier”).
It’s when things happen that it all goes to pot. The action sequences are mercifully few and far between, but they’re all drowned in godawful CG. The problem starts with the sword itself — it might look like one of the most formidable pieces of steel ever forged, but it works more like a magic stuff, summoning a whirlwind of lame special effects that suck the life out of every fight scene. You’ll roll your eyes every time Arthur pulls Excalibur out from its sheath. And the final confrontation, which looks more like a beta test for a new “Soul Calibur” game than it does the climactic battle of a major Hollywood movie, results in an ending so anti-climactic that you’ll be glad not to care about what happens.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” opens in theaters on Friday, May 12.