Having shrunk the great Sherlock Holmes to fit the limited palette of short attention span theater (more Vin Diesel than Conan Doyle), filmmaker Guy Ritchie has now unleashed his reductive skills on the Arthurian legend.
Predictably, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is visually elephantine and dramatically stunted.
Know from the start that this “Arthur” has about as much in common with Malory or Tennyson as “Clash of the Titans” did with Bulfinch. Basically it’s a big shapeless slice of sword and sorcery, CG battles and quirky humor (providing you find it at all amusing).
In a prologue, the kingdom of Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is seized during a great battle (war elephants the size of battleships … in England) by his scheming brother Vortigern (a sneering Jude Law, who portrays Watson in Ritchie’s Holmes franchise).
Before dying, Uther sends his young son Arthur off to safety. The boy grows up to be hunky Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”), raised in a brothel and unaware of his royal origins. He’s protective of the harlots who sheltered him and regularly attends classes at a dojo run by an Asian martial arts master. (Seriously, there’s dialogue referring to “kung fu.” In medieval London.)
Meanwhile Vortigern obsesses over finding and killing his nephew, enforcing his will with an army of black-masked warriors who look suspiciously like they’re wearing costumes rejected by the “Star Wars” franchise.
Enter a magician (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who has been sent by her wizardly kinfolk to help Arthur recognize his heritage and abet his ascension to the throne. She has all sorts of skills, like commanding birds and other animals.
The plotting doesn’t matter. Some of the elements tap into the Arthurian legend (the sword in the stone and the Lady of the Lake, though no Guinevere or Lancelot). But the story arc is utterly predictable and serves mostly as a skeleton on which to hang flashy effects.
Arthur’s bunch of close buds (played by, among others, Djimon Hounsou and “Game of Thrones’ ” Aidan Gillen) provide comic relief and a bewildering array of regional Brit accents. In their casually combative banter they are rather obvious cousins to the hapless lowlifes who populated modern-day Ritchie films like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.”
Hunnam looks good but can’t do much with the material, for there is not one genuine moment of emotion in the whole laborious mess. Even the action scenes are more confusing than stimulating.
One is tempted to ask how the film (which reportedly cost $175 million) ever got made. It couldn’t have looked that promising on paper.
But then who would have thought Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” would be a major hit?
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’
Opens at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language.