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'King Arthur' is a lot more fun than it looks (but still not very good)

Remember: It's the latest Guy Ritchie film. Guy Ritchie doesn't make boring films.
King Arthur
Guy Ritchie turned Sherlock Holmes into a shirtless bare-knuckle boxer, and he does the same to King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, left). Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’
Director:
Guy Ritchie
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

You might not expect a King Arthur movie to have a character named “Goosefat.” Or salty future Knights of the Round Table who drop “Bollocks!” and “Oy!”s. From the bland title to the self-important posters, you might not predict “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” would have kinetic foot chases shot with GoPro cameras inches from the actors’ faces, or the token “Here’s the plan” scene done as a lightning fast flurry of quick cuts and sight gags and one-liners. All this may be less surprising, however, if you knew it was directed by Guy Ritchie. Even then, you might not imagine Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur” could be so very Guy Ritchie.

If only it were “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Mages” all the way through. The split is about 60-40, with the director imposing himself upon potentially dusty material yet still surrendering to such modern blockbuster annoyances as a needlessly tangled mythology, poor storytelling and set pieces that look like so much CGI vomit. (At least one of his boasts giant elephants with wrecking balls attached to their ears.)

So here’s the bad news: "Legend of the Sword" is indeed another origin story, with Charlie Hunnam as Arthur before he’s King. The story gets to Arthur raising Excalibur from the stone, then rounding up his crew of future Knights of the Round Table to defeat a tyrant (Jude Law) who has magical powers. Sorry if you wanted to see Merlin or Guinevere or Lancelot or Morgan, let along the Holy Grail. You’ll have to wait for those in the sequels they may never make.

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On the other hand, Ritchie directs the hell out of it — when he can. As in his undersung “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” he finds creative, eccentric ways to tackle generic set pieces. Most improbably of all, it retains Ritchie’s laddish sense of humor. In Ritchie’s contemporary-set films (“Lock, Stock,” “Snatch,” et al.), flashy camerawork, fast cuts and dumb nicknames can be irritating. When they’re in a $100 million blockbuster set in medieval times, they’re strangely charming — a rascal goofing off in a place he doesn’t belong.

But Ritchie can only do so much. You can imagine him telling studio execs he’ll direct a climactic magic sword battle that looks like a “Soulcalibur” duel only if he can call one character “Mischief John.” Sometimes he lets Hunnam occasionally break free of being a taciturn six-pack slab and get in on the fun, too. (Maybe it’s his revelatory turn in the recent “The Lost City of Z” talking, but every now and then he’s as commanding and charismatic here as he was there. If only the whole performance was on that level.)

Still, the storytelling is a shambles, and it tackles the #problematic issue with a laughable lack of enthusiasm. Including a female mage (played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and a multicultural rainbow of to-be-Knights would be better if we actually got to know the characters. Despite considerable effort, it only makes us remember that somehow the Arthurian legend hasn’t yielded many decent films, apart from John Boorman’s “Excalibur,” Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Unlike the fun-suck revisionist "King Arthur" from 13 years ago, this one gets a C+ for effort.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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