King Arthur: Legend of the Sword would like very much to think that it is the height of innovative storytelling technique. Through a combination of James Herbert's frantic editing, Daniel Pemberton's thrashing score, and the screenplay (by Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram, and director Guy Ritchie), the legend of King Arthur has been chiseled into an ungainly blob of expository dialogue that exists with one obvious purpose: to set up a sequel. The film takes so much time, perhaps an hour of its generous two, to reach the point at which the properties of the sword in question are explained that one must simply conclude that this was the only reason the first hour even happens.
All the supposed character and story development suddenly, upon that moment, feels entirely meaningless. After all, the properties of that sword are but a plot point in an inadequate screenplay that does these characters and this plot no favors. The story, such as it is, is entirely typical of the superhero-origin tale that has dominated the blockbuster landscape of late: Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a man of regal birth but common upbringing, is the rightful heir to the throne of Camelot, but his evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) wants ultimate power. Arthur finds himself drawn to the sword, which only he can remove from its current resting place, and a fight between the two is set in motion.
A plot of such simplicity should not be this bogged down in exposition, but much of the dialogue and many of the exchanges - between Arthur and his comrades, between Vortigern and his minions - are riddled with the stuff, explaining and then explaining some more to the audience exactly where we are in the narrative at every passing minute. It doesn't help that there are so many supporting characters. The important ones are Arthur's late father Uther (Eric Bana), whose fate is reiterated in so many flashbacks that it eventually becomes unintentionally funny, Maggie (Annabelle Wallis), companion to Vertigorn and only useful as a plot device in the screenplay for a single scene, and the Mage, a supernatural being played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey in the awkwardly stilted performance of an actress being fed lines through an earpiece.
The Mage is the key to the whole thing, apparently, because she can control animals and reptiles for mostly diminishing returns (We see more of Berges-Frisbey blinking to reveal black-and-red contact lenses than the results of that action) and because she knows everything about the sword of legend, to which every word of her dialogue is dedicated. She helps to reveal to Arthur his tragic past, which he had repressed as a small child sent away, like Moses of the Bible, in a basket down a river into refuge. The more important content of those scenes, to the screenwriters and probably no one else, is the identity of a menacing figure clothed in fire, donning a fearsome helmet, and looking a lot like a bargain-bin Sauron.
The visual effects are rubbery and plastic-looking, John Mathieson's cinematography is so shrouded in darkness that a late confrontation between Arthur and his nemesis (whose identity is obvious from the first scene onward) is rendered unintelligible, and every actor looks desperately bored except for Law, who at least commits to his character's insanity, dull though it is. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is solely interested in introducing us to a set of characters to carry them forward in another cinematic universe.
Charlie Hunnam (Arthur), Jude Law (Vortigern), Astrid Berges-Frisbey (The Mage), Djimon Hounsou (Bedivere), Aiden Gillen (Goosefat Bill), Eric Bana (Uther), Annabelle Wallis (Maggie).
Directed by Guy Ritchie and written by Ritchie, Joby Harold, and Lionel Wigram.
Rated PG-13 (violence/action, suggestive content, brief language).
Released on May 12, 2017.