After scoring two massive hits with the popular and surprisingly sly “Sherlock Holmes” series, which effectively refreshed a stuffy literary world with some clenched-fist energy and funky comedy, director Guy Ritchie attempted to bring the same firepower to another aged property, 2015’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Lightning didn’t strike a third time, with woeful miscastings and lethargic timing hindering what should’ve been a jaunty spy game with distinct period style. Weirdly avoiding a third “Sherlock Holmes,” Ritchie now turns his attention to Arthurian legend, hired to jazz up material that’s been revived repeatedly for screens big and small, with each production striving to be the hot take on round tables and swords in stone. Cruelly, Ritchie remains in “U.N.C.L.E.” mode with “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” which takes the wilds of magic and action and transforms it all into a disappointing lump of a movie, but one that Ritchie does his damndest to keep alive with every trick he’s capable of producing.
Tensions between the worlds of magic and men are explosive, with King Uther (Eric Bana) defending his kingdom of Camelot from evil with help from his sword, Excalibur. Betrayed and murdered by his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), Uther manages to help his son, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), escape, sent into a life of poverty, service, and survival, growing up into a defiant and strong young man. When waters retreat around Camelot, Excalibur is exposed at the bottom of the sea, secured into stone, waiting for the next true king to claim the crown. Planning to kill the victor as he tests community strength, Vortigern is overpowered when Arthur finds himself in command of the magical sword, soon off with a motley crew of soldiers, including Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), trying to organize and return to Camelot as king, seeking revenge on the powermad ruler.
There’s no regality to Ritchie’s film, which is quick to establish the director’s habitual interests in rough, snarky British characters. There’s a little bit of royal concern with Uther’s brief screen appearance, but “King Arthur” hurriedly transforms the material into a version of “Snatch,” Ritchie’s grungy 2000 effort. The cinematic energy is there, funneled into a wonderful montage of Arthur growing up on the hard streets of Londinium, taking beatings, learning to fight, and hoarding coins, becoming the disenchanted young man we finally meet (scoring selections from composer Daniel Pemberton are sensational, providing a thundering, huffing, driving sense of adventure to the feature). He’s a tough kid with a gym rat body who has little patience for anything, eventually forced into taking his turn with Excalibur -- a test of magical connection that burns through his system, giving him a sense of overwhelming power that he spends the rest of the picture trying to understand.
The screenplay doesn’t actually examine Arthurian highlights, trying to find its own footing as a franchise starter pistol that pits the rebel against the established order, with Vortigern a magically-minded villain who’s secured his standing by spilling family blood, making ghoulish deals with a powerful, tentacled sea witch. There’s the overall menace and thirst for power Vortigern provides, but “King Arthur” doesn’t focus on the threat, electing to do some world-building with Arthur and his circle of supporters, including Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), with the gang going through the pains of partnership. Not helping is an overall lack of charisma from the supporting cast, who are meant to create a broheim vibe of teamwork, but mostly seem like cardboard cutouts that occasionally spring into action. Hunnam is also a drag, teaming with Ritchie to make Arthur surprisingly unlikable, putting more attention on needless, tiresome attitude than ragged heroism, making Vortigern’s mission to kill the man who wields Excalibur not entirely unwelcome. Instead of cutting into Arthur’s fears and doubts, he’s depicted as nightclub bouncer, clouding what should be the future king’s ascension to gallantry and leadership.
Ritchie-isms are stamped all over “King Arthur,” striving to electrify the effort with his customary visual tricks and editorial fury. That staleness of it all can’t be lifted, but the production orders up some extreme sights, including an opening battle between Uthur’s army and skyscraper-sized elephants (who are established as real creatures, but we never seen anything as bizarre again), organized by a rogue sorcerer. And digital warfare continues throughout, creating a video game-style atmosphere that makes the movie feel small, including a climatic boss battle with a Sauron-like enemy (one of Ritchie’s many lifts from “Lord of the Rings”) that holds no sense of threat or awe. “King Arthur” struggles to be exciting, but it doesn’t snowball into a grand reintroduction of Arthurian storytelling, which, according to the production, is supposed to carry on for five more movies. Sadly, Ritchie can’t even fill the first installment with a rousing sense of dramatic purpose, making the idea of five more adventures with these blank Camelot residents decidedly unwelcome.