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Legend of the bored

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Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur movie a medieval misfire

In today’s world of big-budget filmmaking, there are a scant few directors with a truly distinct style. There are just a handful whose movies bear a signature aesthetic; they make films that are easily, instantly identifiable as theirs and theirs alone.

Guy Ritchie is one of those filmmakers. There’s no arguing that his movies are unmistakably his … but that’s not always a good thing.

It certainly isn’t as far as “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is concerned. Ritchie brings his typical two-fisted grit to this reimagining of the King Arthur legend, but it’s a poor fit. The director’s frenetic kinetic style is ill-suited to the story; Ritchie sacrifices much of the soul that made the legend so compelling in the first place. The result is a movie with plenty of action and little to say.

In this version, men and mages have existed side-by-side for centuries, but for poorly-defined reasons, the mages – led by the evil Mordred – have decided to rise up. The last holdout is Camelot, led by King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana, “Special Correspondents”) and his magic sword Excalibur alongside his mage brother Vortigen (Jude Law, TV’s “The Young Pope”), but Vortigen’s betrayal leads to the downfall of the kingdom. Uther’s final act is to send his young son away, putting him in a boat to protect him.

The boy is discovered in Londinium and raised in a brothel. In a classic Ritchie quick-hit montage, we watch as he grows up toughened by the mean streets and turns into a sharp and clever rogue named Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, “The Lost City of Z”). He’s rough and tumble, but noble in his way, leading his crew – particularly Tristan (Kingsley Ben-Adir, “Trespass Against Us”) and Backlack (Neil Maskell, “Level Up”) – as they act as quasi-Robin Hoods.

But when Excalibur resurfaces and the legend of the “Born King” begins to spread, Vortigen searches in earnest for the escaped heir. So too does a rebel faction led by the noble Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou, “The Legend of Tarzan”) and the scheming Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillan, TV’s “Game of Thrones”).

But even after Arthur gets his hands on Excalibur, he finds himself struggling to control its immense power. Only when he is able to truly come to terms with his past will he be able to command the sword, but time is short and enemies – man and mage alike – surround him. He is a man who must find his own path to becoming a king.

“King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword” bears all the hallmarks of Guy Ritchie. There’s the street-level thuggery and the petty criminal cleverness. There are snide jokes and lots of punching. And as always, there are the fast-slow-fast-slow action sequences driven by a thumpingly propulsive score.

What there isn’t is a single character that we have any reason to care about.

The King Arthur legend has plenty of compelling richness to offer, so to have much of that spirit replaced with self-aware winking and empty action is more than a little disappointing. Not that it should come as a surprise – Ritchie has already done a similar number on Sherlock Holmes, though it should be noted that those movies are considerably better than this one.

Ultimately, the film’s biggest crime is that it is. Just. So. Boring. The lack of genuine characterization leaves the entire movie feeling like a gold-plated turd – shiny on the outside and almost utterly without value within.

Charlie Hunnam isn’t a bad actor, but he’s the primary reason this film can’t even reach the meager heights of Ritchie’s Sherlock movies. Robert Downey Jr. makes those movies palatable by way of a sheer charisma that Hunnam can’t hope to match. I like Hunnam, but he’s no action star, despite his best efforts. He does what he can, but it isn’t nearly enough.

Law is fine – his long history with Ritchie ensures that he gets it – but the thinness of the script does him no favors. Hounsou is woefully underutilized, while Gillan appears doomed to play variations on the theme of Littlefinger for the foreseeable future. Ben-Adir and Maskell are solid as Arthur’s buddies, but they’re way too far down the call list to save the day.

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is undeniably a Guy Ritchie movie – and is much the worse for it. We can only hope that going forward, he will stick to quirky crime films and leave the beloved literary characters alone. Alas, if the shameless set-up of this film’s ending is any indication, moviegoers might well be heading back to Camelot – whether they want to or not.

[1 out of 5]

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