Deep into Guy Ritchie's "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword ," a bad guy who we've never met before informs Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) and his mates that they'd better be at the castle before dark if they want to see "the boy" and "the girl" again. It's one of those harmless, up the stakes clichés that's all too common in action movies, but, in the flawed yet amusing "King Arthur," it unwittingly left me baffled. "Which girl?" I wondered, sincerely doubting that this was the intended effect.
At this point there are two options: The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a strange animal-controlling sorceress who we recently saw with a knife at her throat, or Maggie (Annabelle Wallis) who over the course of the movie is so underdeveloped that at different points I'd thought she was Arthur's presumed to be dead mother (who is in fact played by the just similar enough-looking Poppy Delevingne) or the evil King Vortigern's (Jude Law) wife. (She's neither.) It's a strange thing for a movie that is this packed to the brim with dialogue and clever exposition to have managed to so insufficiently explain a supposed key player. The film is somehow both overwritten and underwritten.
It's a stretch to even deem it a King Arthur movie (marketing calls it an "iconoclastic take on the classic Excalibur myth," while a producer says it's "not your father's King Arthur.")
And yet, "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," is reasonably entertaining with its CGI-laden summer nonsense, stuffed with mystical beasts (including giant elephant-like creatures with wrecking ball tails), vulgar action and delicious scenery chewing from Law. It skates by on Ritchie's divisively kinetic filmmaking and the charisma of Hunnam's reluctant hero.
This Arthur was raised in a brothel after seeing his mother and father, King Uther (Eric Bana) killed in a coup. A speed-induced montage later and Arthur is a fully grown and martial arts trained man who is a street-wise protector of the brothel's prostitutes. His Uncle Vortigern, who sold his soul to get the crown, rules Camelot. But Vortigern can't access his full powers without the Excalibur sword, which, as you know, is stuck in a rock. This leads Vortigern's soldiers to round up every man of Arthur's age to find the remaining heir.
Hunnam's Arthur is a wise-cracking, sensitive brute, who neither seeks nor wants power of any kind. What he does want is never really explored beyond the fact that he cares about his friends and feels some sort of obligation to protect the weak. But he eventually gets on board with his birthright — partly to avenge his father's death and partly because a group of outlaws, including The Mage, Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Bill (Aidan Gillen), sort of make him do it. An Arthur for the millennial generation perhaps?
Indeed, Ritchie's "King Arthur" seems specifically designed to appeal to the "Game of Thrones" crowd (though mercifully with some hope infused into the core of the story) and definitely not to anyone who has any deep reverence for the classic tale. If that's a compromise you're willing to make, there are some genuinely compelling and innovative sequences of the action and dialogue variety (and a jarring David Beckham cameo). The film falls apart in the final showdown, however, when Ritchie gives himself over to the CGI gods to craft a mind-numbing duel that looks so much like a video game, it would be easy to forget you're still watching "King Arthur."
Despite a shameless non-ending that hints at sequel possibilities, this is not a film that is likely to stick with you even past the movie theater parking lot. Like Arthur, you'll be happy that you got alive and relatively unscathed.
"King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language. Running time: 126 minutes. Two stars out of four.