English dude-bro Guy Ritchie, having made his mark on the Sherlock Holmes mythos, turns his attention now to a famous Brit who probably actually existed. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which Ritchie co-wrote with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, applies the same kind of whirling, modern, masculine energy to Arthur and Excalibur that he applied (somewhat exhaustingly) to Holmes and Watson, and the results are slickly, dumbly entertaining. Guy Ritchie is what you would get if Michael Bay had a sense of humor and wasn’t a moron.
After a spectacular pre-credits battle that involves, among other things, giant war elephants and the death of Arthur’s father, Uther (Eric Bana), we get a brisk montage of young Artie growing up a streetwise urchin cared for by prostitutes in the bustling town of Londinium. As an adult (played by Charlie Hunnam), Arthur is unaware that tyrannical king Vortigern (a coldly sniveling Jude Law) is his uncle, much less that Uncle Vort is searching the kingdom for him. There’s this sword stuck in a rock, you see, and the only person who can pull it out is Uther’s son and the rightful heir to the throne; Vortigern wants to find this person and kill him.
Vortigern, it should be mentioned, is using dark magic to maintain his usurped authority and amass more power, having made a deal with a many-tentacled octopus-witch, as one does.
Yes, there is magic in this world, in the form of Mages, whom everyone liked just fine until one of them went rogue and started using all that sweet Mage power to create, among other things, giant war elephants. Anti-Mage sentiment is now at an all-time high, but a mysterious young Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who can control animals with her mind is sent by Merlin (who is not a character in the film) to help Arthur learn his power, face his destiny, and save his people. In this they are aided by resistance fighters with names like Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), and Back Lack (Neil Maskell), who are all good for some laughs and a bit of pathos.
The story details, pulled from Arthurian legends and the writers’ own butts, are bizarre enough to be intriguing but not so crazy they’re laughable. The effect is one of amiable insanity: this is nonsense, mostly, but not the intelligence-insulting kind. It’s frisky and funny, with a game cast — Hunnam’s charisma has mostly been absent from his film roles prior to this one — and an infectiously chipper tone. Ritchie has a knack for breezy, anachronistic sarcasm that amuses me, not to mention an ability to stage action scenes un-chaotically. On the other hand, as a storyteller he has an annoying fondness for skipping over events in the plot and coming back a couple scenes later to fill us in on what happened. These narrative jumps, peppy though they are, start to feel superfluous. But you get used to it. Excessive? Yes: just the right amount.
Eric D. Snider is being raised by prostitutes in Portland.