There are some first-rate performances in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” most of them delivered by computer-generated animals. Eagles swoop down from the sky to fend off hostile armed guards. Venomous snakes swell to Kraken-esque dimensions. Giant elephants stomp into battle and knock down bridges with wrecking balls, which is a pretty good metaphor for director Guy Ritchie’s nothing-sacred approach to Arthurian myth.
Somehow hectic and lumbering, diverting and dispiriting all at once, this mud-toned medieval pulp largely cleaves to the spirit of Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” series, reducing a fabled figure of British lore to two hours of tough-guy swagger and head-pounding digital thwackery. “This is not your father’s King Arthur,” one of the film’s producers notes in the press materials, to which I would only add that sometimes father knows best.
The movies, of course, would seem to have already exhausted the sheer range of dramatic possibilities where the once and future king is concerned, from the tragic romanticism of “Camelot” (1967) and the lushly enveloping fantasy of “Excalibur” (1981) to the dour, unsentimental realism of “King Arthur” (2004). I know I said “dramatic possibilities,” but it would be personally disingenuous of me to pretend that I’ve seen a greater Arthurian movie than “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Ritchie’s woefully coconut-free version is more or less what we have come to expect from Hollywood circa 2017 A.D., where every legend can be recast as a superhero and every superhero needs an origin story. This one, as imagined by screenwriters Ritchie, Jody Harold and Lionel Wigram, mostly takes place at a grimly revisionist Camelot where bright colors appear to have been outlawed, Merlin is mentioned but never seen, and Guinevere and Lancelot are at least one putative sequel away.
When the good King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is betrayed and overthrown by his power-hungry brother Vortigern (Jude Law), Uther’s young son, Arthur, is forced to make like Moses and flee downriver. He winds up in the ancient Roman city of Londinium, where he is raised by prostitutes and becomes a wily street hustler with little memory of his royal roots and no knowledge that he will grow up to be played by a massively ripped Charlie Hunnam.
But there’s no escaping destiny, and after a few fateful encounters with some Viking mercenaries, a skilled archer named Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen) and, inevitably, a sword named Excalibur, our reluctant hero finds himself face-to-face with his evil uncle Vortigern. Fearing the prophecy that he will be usurped by “the born king,” Vortigern sets out to destroy Arthur and all that he holds dear.
Big mistake, obviously. But then, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is nothing if not a paean to obviousness, no matter how many jittery narrative and stylistic fillips Ritchie employs in an attempt to ward off inertia. He is as fond as ever of slowing down and speeding up his action scenes — a gimmicky device that serves only to dilute the movie’s visceral impact, already rendered negligible by a bloodless PG-13 rating. He also likes to cram the frame with secondary characters with memorable names like Bedivere, Wet Stick and Back Lack, none of whom leaves an especially memorable impression.
The director’s rambunctious style does allow for a few flashes of narrative invention. In one scene, the recounting of a simple chain of events becomes a dementedly intricate he-said, he-said comic routine — the kind of fast-talking sequence that might stir fond memories of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” those peak Ritchie romps from the ’90s.
The actors too are fine if uninspired. Hunnam, coming off his career-best work in “The Lost City of Z,” submits gamely enough to this story’s clunkier heroics. It’s a pleasure to see Gillen, if for no other reason than to remind us that a new season of “Game of Thrones” is just around the corner. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey is suitably bewitching as a benevolent sorceress known as the Mage; she happens to be the only woman in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” who advances the plot by doing something other than getting stabbed to death, so cheers to her.
Finally, there is Law, who, after two rounds of Dr. Watson duty in Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” movies, seems to be relishing a flamboyantly villainous change of pace. His Vortigern glowers sadistically and has an odd habit of fondling cylindrical objects, whether it’s the base of a hot, dripping candle or the hilt of his weapon. It’s probably no coincidence that he plots to consolidate his reign by erecting a massive, flaming tower of power, though frankly, if I were the Dark Lord Sauron, I’d call and demand my eye back.
‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’
MPAA rating: PG-13, for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: In general release