(CNN) — Fidelity to the Camelot legend shouldn’t be a prerequisite for “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Rudimentary logic, however, would be nice, in a numbing film seemingly determined to reshape the source into a poor man’s “Lord of the Rings,” proving that tinkering with such familiar origins can indeed be a double-edged sword.
Dark, loud and exceedingly busy, “King Arthur” draws upon only the bare bones of the Arthurian tale and builds a messy hybrid upon that frame — showcasing Guy Ritchie’s bludgeoning directing style while borrowing heavily from the “Rings” films’ visual palette, while falling well short of their cinematic magic.
A precedent for this sort of liberty-taking fantasy would be “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” although the result here makes that popcorn-y Kevin Costner adventure look like a masterpiece. Strictly in commercial terms, the movie will also need to perform awfully well internationally to justify the king’s ransom sunk into a project that credits Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin among its producers.
The revised mythology begins with a war between men and mages, magical beings who arrive behind an army led by gigantic elephants. If that sounds “Rings”-like, just wait for the forbidding tower from which the bad guy derives power, which lacks only Sauron’s big glowing eye.
King Uther (Eric Bana) bravely saves the day, but his evil brother (Jude Law) soon usurps the throne. Before expiring, Uther manages to help his young son onto a small boat, and the tyke safely drifts away, to be raised — via one long musical montage — in a brothel. (OK, so similarities to the Moses story only go so far.)
The resourceful Arthur (“Sons of Anarchy’s” Charlie Hunnam, in need of a charisma transfusion here) spends most of the movie as a reluctant hero, resisting his heritage even after yanking the fabled sword from the stone.
Arthur is plagued by nightmares about his past, and what amount to fainting spells when he grasps the magic blade. When he finally wields it, the seismic effect is on the magnitude of Thor’s hammer, leveling enemies with plenty of sound and fury.
Ritchie’s stylized action sequences frequently employ techniques like slow motion, but the mix of gritty battles and CGI monstrosities never meshes.
The same goes for the film’s tone, as the director and his script collaborators try to have fun with playful, fast-paced banter, which is mostly as garbled as the plot. The story’s general sloppiness squanders a promising supporting cast that includes Djimon Hounsou, “Game of Thrones'” Aidan Gillen and Law, who previously teamed with Ritchie on the Sherlock Holmes films.
Entering another summer movie season heavily stocked with sequels, one is tempted to cut “King Arthur” a bit of slack for at least trying something slightly different, even if that involves bastardizing one of literature’s classic tales.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is hardly the first and won’t be the last stab at revisiting or revamping Camelot. It’s just that in welding the pieces together, with apologies to Ritchie’s Holmes movies, this filmmakers look like they haven’t got a clue.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” opens in the U.S. on May 12. It’s rated PG-13.