After a weird text prologue vaguely describes a magic war, the guy who was the Hulk for one movie (Eric Bana) jumps atop a building-sized elephant to kill an invading army before Jude Law sacrifices his wife to a tentacled sea creature that turns him into a skull-faced Conan-the-Barbarian-looking mothertrucker. This is immediately prior to a funky montage where King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up a warm-hearted pimp. Writer/director Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword starts off with an acid bath of gleeful insanity and ends with King Arthur as a straight-up superhero. Sadly, everything between feels like wannabe Game of Thrones. And not “OMG! White Walkers, dragon babies and drunken Dinklage!” Game of Thrones, but the other 60 hours of the HBO show nobody talks about.
In this retelling of the familiar legend, Ritchie gets some character names right, and there are swords. Other than that, this is like a candid pic of King Arthur compared with his profile pic. There’s a mild resemblance at best. After Vortigern (Law) betrays his brother, Uther (Bana), he rules his kingdom exactly as cruelly as someone with Law’s hairline would. One day, the sword in the stone appears, and Arthur is forced to pull it, revealing he’s Uther’s son and the true heir to the throne. Vortigern tries to execute Arthur, but he’s able to escape, regroup with his squad of disinterested white bros and Djimon Hounsou and attempt to reclaim the kingdom.
Ritchie’s trademark style is substituted for any interesting wrinkles in the script, cowritten by Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram from a story by David Dobkin and Harold. You know it was penned by four dudes because the only woman prominently featured doesn’t even get a name. She’s just called “The Mage” (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), and her backstory is that she has pretty eyes and is going through a Goth phase. She is pivotal to Arthur learning how to wield Excalibur, in that she tells him to use both hands. Seriously.
Here’s the thing: Aside from having two of the most blatant token characters in Hounsou’s Bedivere and “The Mage,” King Arthur isn’t as awful as it sounds. It’s like that nursery rhyme about the girl with the curl: When it’s weird, it’s very very good, but when it’s bland, it’s made-for SyFy TV. It doesn’t help that Hunnam’s presence on the big screen across his entire filmography, but especially here, can be described as “legally alive.” Nor does it help that studio suits obviously mandated that Ritchie tone down his nutbar Frank Frazetta-meets-Snatch approach.
The film gets caught in the hallway, sneaking out of a room marked “Safe and Mass Appealing” and into one labeled “Giant Snakes and Medieval Superheroes Inside.” It’s undeniably watchable, if unreasonably boring for surprisingly long stretches, and destined to betray the sequel-suggesting hubris of its ending, which tries to treat the Knights of the Round Table like The Avengers. Nobody is falling asleep in Sir Percival Underoos, Warner Bros. Move along.
This review previously appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.