Schoolteachers who want to bust students for watching Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” instead of doing the reading should be on the lookout for phrases like “kaiju elephants,” “martial-arts training” and “snake-bite hallucinations” in future book reports.
This is not your father’s Camelot legend, as “King Arthur” proclaims from scene to scene, and whether or not you embrace this jacked-up take on the once and future king will rely entirely on your tolerance for Ritchie’s filmmaking at its most caffeinated. There are quick cuts and CG imagery and bro-ing out in nearly equal proportions; I found some of this excess to be heady and exciting, but by the end of the film’s running time, it all became a bit tiresome, to say nothing of tiring.
What Ritchie (and fellow screenwriters Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram) offer here is a remix of the Arthurian legend, playing around with the chronology and sampling bits of other origin stories, from Moses (orphaned baby Arthur is set adrift down the Thames on a raft) to “Batman Begins” (as a child, he’s trained in the martial arts by the one Asian guy in all of Londinium, a character the film actually refers to as “Kung Fu George,” played by Tom Wu of “Marco Polo”).
Arthur’s childhood is handled in a montage that shows Ritchie at his French-New-Wave-on-speed best, a series of smackdowns and humiliations that build the child to grow from victim to a full-grown prince of thieves. Once the character matures into Charlie Hunnam (sporting the same mildly-perturbed expression that made up the bulk of his “Lost City of Z” performance), he’s strong and savvy, standing apart in the grimy London streets and cutting a figure in ecru casual separates.
(The movie accentuates the relative brightness of his wardrobe with an overhead shot of Arthur in a packed barge, surrounded by people in brown and black. One is reminded of a line from a superior version of this tale, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in which a peasant observes that Arthur “must be a king” because “he hasn’t got s–t all over him.”)
Perfectly happy as a scoundrel, Arthur’s life takes a turn when he pulls legendary magic sword Excalibur out of the stone, putting him at odds with evil king Vortigem (Jude Law); uncle Vortigem once studied with evil wizard Mordred before murdering Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) to take the throne. Uther’s allies Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and William (Aidan Gillen), with the help of a supportive and unnamed mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”), push Arthur into leading their revolution, although in true Joseph Campbell style, this reluctant hero refuses over and over before finally accepting his destiny.
Ritchie and his regular editor James Herbert cut up the action scenes with the desperation of the life of the party who’s secretly afraid to go home to his empty apartment. “King Arthur” seems constantly panicked that the audience’s attention span won’t last another second, so each moment is a frenzy of sight and sound (particularly Daniel Pemberton’s emphatically percussive score), and the ultimate effect is more exhausting than exhilarating.
At one point, the director even straps GoPro cameras to his actors as they run through the streets, so they’ll stay static in the frame while the background jostles by; the exact same shot pops up in the new comedy “Snatched,” only played for laughs. (If Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot of the Lake” has an antithesis, “King Arthur” is it.)
Amidst the frantic cutting, Ritchie keeps loading on the phallic imagery: Arthur’s power derives from his sword, while Vortigem must be stopped from completing his tall, tall tower. And then there are the constant snakes: some challenge Arthur or provide him with hallucinogenic venom, while Vortigem receives advice from a group of serpent women who appear to have swum in from “The Little Mermaid.”
This isn’t an actor’s movie, although Law does at least find a few moments to play Vortigem like a preening Mussolini, shouting at the assembled masses while swathed in fur and eagle-head epaulets. Otherwise, the characters are there to move the story along and to be consistently heroic or villainous throughout.
In a sense, Arthur — aristocrat by nature, thug by nurture — is the ideal Ritchie hero; the filmmaker’s lineage can be traced back to Edward I, but he’s spent most of his directing career celebrating small-time gangsters (“Snatch,” “RocknRolla”) and backing the proletariat in the class struggle (“Swept Away”).
If you like Guy Ritchie in blam-blam-blam mode, then “King Arthur” will be your grail of mead; those who prefer his work on a film like “The Man from UNCLE” — which feels like “My Dinner with Andre” compared to the hyperkineticism on display here — may find that there’s too much “a lot” in this Camelot.