King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

126 min. Director: Guy Ritchie. Cast: Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law.

That most flexible of ancient legends gets a new workout in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the first in what’s rumored to be a six-film series, box-office willing. Certainly, this is the first version of the King Arthur story to feature a character referred to as “Kung Fu George” or a David Beckham cameo, but let’s just say Ritchie’s take on Arthurian legend isn’t going to surprise anyone who knows what’s up at the multiplex these days.

A dedicated stylist who got his start with gangster comedies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie has become a go-to guy for Warner Brothers’ franchise hopes, first with Sherlock Holmes (a hit that spawned a sequel) and then with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (a flop). And so we get a King Arthur in which the displaced royal—cast off Moses-like after the murder of his parents—grows up thinking he’s “the bastard son of a prostitute,” raised in a Londinium brothel to become a gangster with a crew. In Ritchie’s neatest stylistic trick, Arthur’s twenty-year journey from boy to man (Charlie Hunnam, who’s serviceable when he doesn’t succumb to shouty mode) takes about two minutes of screen time in a super-charged montage.

That’s after a prologue that promises an awful, awe-full lot of spectacle, first with a massive conflagration pitting the supernatural might of mage sorcerer Mordred against the otherwise peaceful kingdom of Arthur’s dad, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), and then with the palace coup of villainous Vortigern (Jude Law, Ritchie’s Dr. Watson), enabled by a Faustian deal with a triad of witches. Essentially, Law’s doing a pared-down Macbeth in the margins of this movie, and almost making something of the thin scripting through his Shakespearean enthusiasms.

Mostly, though, Legend of the Sword feels like a rather desperate attempt—in design, music, and even casting—to score some of that sweet, sweet Game of Thrones cash. And since Batman Begins remains the template for origin-story reboots, Legend of the Sword doubles down on traumatized boys and gives Arthur martial-arts training sourced from the Far East (around the climax, Ritchie whips up some special-effects-enhanced sword fu).

There’s the Sword in the Stone (Excalibur, as usual), the Lady in the Lake, a formidable and fetching female mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), and multiple bad-dream and vision-quest flashbacks as Arthur reckons with his once and future destinies, all culminating in a video-gamey showdown that wipes away the movie’s best actor (Law) and replaces him with a digital demon. Ritchie’s Arthur is more likely to be remembered for the crime-comedy touches he and co-writers Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram have stamped onto it: knockabout Lock, Stock-style dialogues, a campaign planned like a heist, a “safe house” (though sensible, the phrase has an anachronistic ring).

Despite some striking visuals (including sweeping use of Welsh and Scottish locations) and the occasional evocation of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, this newfangled Arthur comes up short on grandeur or even old-fashioned matinee adventure, trading them in for cosmetic Game of Thrones grot.