By Michael Phillips 2017-06-23

Chicago Tribune

1 1/2 stars

"From nothing comes a king": So declares the poster for director Guy Ritchie's soccer hooligan edition of "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword." It stars Charlie Hunnam's muscle mass and, secondarily, Charlie Hunnam as the bare-knuckled, head-butting brawler and "bastard son of a prostitute," as he introduces himself at one point. He's also the rightful heir to the throne stolen by Jude Law's ruthless Vortigern, the fifth-century Alan Rickman. The way Law slouches in the corner in his chair, eyes bugging out with panicky evil, it's one of the movie's fleeting rewards.

I'm no businessman, but plans for a six-film franchise may be optimistic. Optimism is nowhere to be found in Ritchie's movie itself. It is a grim and stupid thing, from one of the world's most successful mediocre filmmakers, and if Shakespeare's King Lear were blogging today, he'd supply the blurb quote: "Nothing will come of nothing."

Orphaned at age 2 and sent up the river to fifth-century Londinium, also known as "London: The Prequel," young Arthur is taken in by a gaggle of kindly sex workers. In a signature, hard-driving Ritchie montage we're shown the hardscrabble lad's coming of age and his lessons in mixed martial arts combat as taught by a Chinese-run clan, which of course has nothing, nothing to do with the film's Chinese box office prospects.

Early on Arthur yanks Excalibur out of the stone, but he's not ready for the murderous yet righteous Force of it. He must grow into his destiny, and the killing machine he hath pluck'd from its craggy resting place. With Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), the supernaturally glaring Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and various bruisers by his side, Arthur takes on Vortigern following his vision quest through the "Dark Lands." Here, another montage: rain, predators, painful childhood memories, manly solitude.

Elsewhere in "King Arthur" there are enormous snakes, ridiculously oversized elephants, and a general "Lord of the Rings"/"Game of Thrones" air of anything's-possible. The slow motion/fast motion change-ups in the gamer-style action sequences; the twisty, narratively intrusive flashbacks; the speculative flash-forwards; all these have worked for Ritchie since the larky crime bash "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." "King Arthur" is essentially "Lock, Stock and One Smoking Broadsword."

It may be for you. For me? It is not. Ritchie co-wrote the script with Joby Harold and Ritchie's producing partner Lionel Wigram, and while the preview audience in Chicago seemed to enjoy how Arthur kills a massive number of anonymous adversaries simply by waving Excalibur and generating the usual swirls of blueish digital effects, that sort of shortcut slaughter feels like cheating. The motives here are pure revenge, never mind nobility. Between his "Sherlock Holmes" franchise and this movie, Ritchie's our official go-to director for goodwill erosion. If more "King Arthur" movies really are coming, maybe we'll get around to an investment in mythological wonder to go with the joyless chaos.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language).

Running time: 2:06

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