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Medieval melee 

Guy Ritchie's take on 'King Arthur' is deft, if not sublime.

click to enlarge 'FROM STONE TO THE THRONE': Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) pulls the storied sword from a river stone in Ritchie's reimagining of the Arthurian legend.
  • 'FROM STONE TO THE THRONE': Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) pulls the storied sword from a river stone in Ritchie's reimagining of the Arthurian legend.

To date, the best movie incarnation of Arthurian legend might have been Disney's 1963 animated "The Sword in the Stone." A 2004 adaptation starring Clive Owen was panned, but at least recouped its investment. Now we get the 2017 edition, "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," in which Charlie Hunnam ("Pacific Rim," "Sons of Anarchy") plays the titular Art and pulls the legendary Excalibur. Guy Ritchie directs, bringing his signature sheer edits and stylized gangland patter: The Middle Ages never seemed so frenetic. With "Game of Thrones" delayed till mid-summer, this "Arthur" should've caught fantasy-inclined audiences at a point of maximum swordthirst. Instead, a film that's clearly positioning itself as a franchise — gentle spoiler, the final scene includes a round table in progress — could barely limp through the weekend for $15 million, a disaster for a film that cost a dozen times that to make.

We may not get another swing at Arthurian legend for a while, so if you want to see what one looks like in the latter half of the 2010s, as some Ph.D. candidate surely will 100 years from now, have a look. Best I can tell you, it's "Lord of the Rings" fed through a Marvel movie, with perhaps a dash of "The Matrix" and Ritchie's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." In the cast you'll notice veterans of "Gladiator" and, yep, "Game of Thrones."

Naturally, an adaptation of a centuries-old legend is going to be, at some level, derivative. Of the four dudes who wrote the story and script, three, Ritchie included, are Brits. Certainly they were digesting the many layers of Arthur stories (and stories, like the "Narnia" tales, that trace back to them) they'd collected over their lives. What they came out with tossed off a great deal of that orthodoxy — yet arrives in many ways as a seemingly fungible action movie, bound not to geography or history, but scantily supported by them, either.

Arthur is just a boy here when his rad dad King Eric Bana — in shades of "Troy" — helps to thwart an invasion by armies riding on elephants the size of soccer stadiums. He's then slain by some kind of flaming Skeletor horseman as he's helping Arthur escape a coup by Jude Law, Arthur's uncle, who is bitter and power-mad but not otherwise particularly interesting. Child Arthur escapes Baby Moses-style in a boat (though, despite a series of flashbacks, it's never exactly clear how he managed this). He survives in the arms of kind people downriver who take him in and raise him as a brothel orphan. Haunted by nightmares of his parents' murder, he trains and saves and lives like a monk with killer lats, unaware of his royal provenance. Yet his return is foretold, and outside his evil uncle's castle the river recedes to reveal a broadsword stuck in a big ol' stone.

Events conspire to place him within sword-yanking distance, and then it's game on. His evil king uncle wants him dead; a deep-woods resistance force (including hot/powerful mage Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) wants him to lead it; and Arthur himself plunges into an identity crisis. Is he indeed royalty, ready to ascend to the throne? Can he handle the vast power of the sword? Can he stomach the toll of war? And can he ever keep his shirt on for longer than 10 minutes at a stretch?

To Ritchie's credit, the story stays fleet and, for the most part, pretty fun; Hunnam is at turns glib and charming and makes a convincing fighter. Sequences that other directors would've let bog down 15 minutes or more he resolves in a compressed, flipbook style, ducking quickly through time, letting one scene narrate a second or a third, till you arrive through a 2-minute wormhole to the end of a key plot point. It all works insofar as it needs to, but without ever touching the sublime. The possible exception is the soundtrack, where British folk musician Sam Lee finds the jangly, dirgelike, haunting, spot-on treatment for the tone Ritchie's reaching for. This version of Arthur's legend is thus best read as an accompaniment to another format that keeps adapting: the music video.

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