There is a very convincing argument that the Hollywood sausage machine lacks distinctive artistic voices; the meat tends to come out rather flavorless and uniform in appearance. Fanboys (and critics) love to ponder parallel universe scenarios: “Imagine _________ directed by _________.” This typically has more to do with what we imagine we’re not getting from safe, predictable, and typically boring product than what sometimes we are; the alternative possibilities always sound so tantalizing, so fresh, so different.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” makes a similarly convincing argument that sometimes unique voices are at odds with the sausage machine, and that no matter how you season it, it’s still just ground-up pig parts shoved into an edible condom. Here we have Guy Ritchie, a director whose distinctive style is about as far from the mainstream as one can get, tackling what is clearly designed as a summer franchise-starter. It’s an unconventional pairing, and, not surprisingly, nothing about “King Arthur” works on any level; even the elements that are clever when taken on their own are haphazardly jammed together. It’s a two-hour mess that, like Ritchie’s previous attempts at commercial convention-breaking (two similarly-flawed “Sherlock Homes” films and last year’s “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”), leave one wishing for a less distinctive voice, as the pork product would be at least easier to chew, swallow, and digest.
If you’re an Arthurian scholar, or possess even basic familiarity with the lore and iconography thanks to that AP English teacher you probably hated, check your suit of armor at the door. Ritchie, along with the three other writers attached to this disaster of a screenplay, more or less throws everything about the King Arthur legend over the castle wall and instead recycles the plot of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” — a film which typifies the sort of bland, inoffensive sausage patty “King Arthur” is sometimes trying to be, only with a lot less teal and gold in the color palette, and one hundred percent more Bryan Adams. In this retelling, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is the rightful heir of Camelot, which has been usurped by the traitorous half-mage Vortigern (Jude Law). It’s up to Arthur to draw the fabled sword from the Eric Bana-shaped stone, and assemble a ragtag group of outlaws to overthrow the wicked king, who uses black sorcery that only the fabled Excalibur can extinguish. Along the way we’re teased with setups (look, they’re building a round table!) clearly designed to be paid off in the five planned sequels we’ll probably (definitely) never see.
The first half of the film contains all of Ritchie’s signature quirks: hyperactive shaky cam, whip pans, temporal crosscutting, and actors who are difficult to understand despite the fact that they’re supposedly speaking English. The second half, by contrast, feels assembled by a second unit crew, as it’s relentlessly CGI-heavy and in no way harmonious with the character scenes that are distinctly “Guy Ritchie” in construction. The film jumps between styles so aggressively that it’s almost schizophrenic, and it looks and feels like one of those video game movie tie-ins nobody wants to play. Set piece! Cutscene! Set piece! Cutscene! Boss Battle! Once you finally reach the climax – during which Arthur learns to hold down the left trigger and press square-triangle-circle to unlock Excalibur’s +5 Sweeping Tornado Roll Attack – you’re just ready for it to be over.
While the 3D format can be used to enhance certain films for theatrical presentation, “King Arthur” feels like it is chasing higher ticket prices via post-conversion rather than whether the film is actually appropriate for the experience. It isn’t. Ritchie’s tendency to use fast, hard cuts and montage-heavy editing renders “King Arthur” difficult to watch. Your eye never quite has time to adjust to each new clip, and the handheld camerawork feels like a drunken stagger rather than frenetic immersion. “King Arthur” is literally nauseating to watch. Added to this is the anachronistic musical score, which has all the subtlety of a tractor trailer driving through your front yard and causing everything in the house to rattle. Between the two, sitting through this film is like listening to someone throw a drawer filled with silverware down the stairs for two hours while you’re having a seizure. Don’t eat beforehand or your dinner may wind up in your lap.
Hunnam does his best Brad Pitt impression, while Law projects the confidence of a bored professional sleepwalking through rehearsals. The supporting cast never really has the opportunity to register, which is unfortunate given that Arthurian lore has one of the most impressive ensemble casts to tap into. Only Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, playing an unnamed Merlin stand-in, truly stands out, and that’s for giving one of the worst film performances in recent history. Her voice causes one to wince even more than the score does, laboriously contorting her lips to expel sounds that stand in for speech. She’s like a less talented Gal Gadot trying to emote the menu at Taco Bell.
Long, loud, boring, and literally stomach churning. The film’s laboriously overlong title tells you all you need to know about how completely overwrought the movie is; “King Awful” is nearer to the mark.
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Written by Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, and Lionel Wigram
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language