Let’s cut to the chase: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is $100 million worth of junk, a digitized 3-D vulgarization of the Camelot legend so complete that it staggers the senses. It is ugly, crowded, deafening, overwrought, and incomprehensible, a pandering botch on a gargantuan scale. It’s the cinematic equivalent of eczema. The editing alone could induce an aneurysm. It’ll probably be a hit.
The director, co-writer, and auteur of this steroidal farrago is Guy Ritchie, the British bad boy whose spiffy gangster farces — “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” in 1998, “Snatch” in 2000 — have given way to blockbusters bad (2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” and its 2011 sequel) and good (2015’s delightful “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”). With this film, Ritchie hopes to reinvigorate the lucrative commercial franchise established by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136 and Thomas Malory in 1485; “Legend of the Sword” is rumored to be the first in a six-film cycle. Here’s hoping the world ends first.
We open where most overstuffed fantasy epics appear to end, with massive CGI Armageddon. Battle-elephants the size of King Kong swing maces under the spell of the wizard Mordred (Rob Knighton), who’s in league with Vortigern (Jude Law), the nasty, power-mad brother of King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). Uther gets gone, Vortigern becomes king, and the toddler Arthur floats downriver in a boat to Londinium, where he will be raised as a scrapper and a brothel boy.
So, right, in the first 10 minutes, the movie has sampled “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Lion King,” and “The Ten Commandments,” all with Ritalin editing, pounding camerawork, and a score that constitutes felony assault. As “Legend of the Sword” proceeds, it cribs from “Gladiator,” “300,” “Game of Thrones,” the old “Kung Fu” TV show, and an awful lot of “Robin Hood.” It’s like having someone with multiple-personality disorder scream in your face for two hours and six minutes.
Baby Arthur grows up to be a fifth-century WWE fighter (Charlie Hunnam) who don’t want nuthin’ from nobody nohow, but there’s this sword in a stone, see, and Vortigern won’t rest until he finds the man who can, uh, pull it out. He has the sea hag from “The Little Mermaid” in his castle basement telling him she needs the sword or he won’t be able to build his magic tower into the mightiest flaming phallic symbol in Christendom.
There’s no Merlin — Ian McKellen probably told his agent to say he was busy — but there is a Morgan Le Fay figure, the Mage (French actress Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), an emo sorceress who’s the nearest the movie comes to a love interest or, indeed, a woman of any kind. (Vortigern has a mistress, played by Annabelle Wallis, and a few slinky daughters, but on-site job fatalities seem to be a recurrent problem in this family.)
Mostly, Arthur hangs out with his bros, a multi-cultural crew that includes the absurdly named Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Back Lack (Neil Maskell), the less absurdly named Percival (Craig McGinlay) and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), and, in Goosefat Bill, a character played by an actual “Game of Thrones” performer, Aidan “Littlefinger” Gillen. On balance, the character complexity in “Legend of the Sword” is to that HBO series as a child’s action figure is to the collected works of Tolstoy. Arthur also has a Chinese fighting master (Tom Wu), because that makes as much sense as anything else here.
There are glimmers of macho wit, and something more enjoyably ripe whenever Law is onscreen playing Vortigern as a cross between the Emperor Nero and late-period Joan Crawford. In one or two of the early scenes, as Arthur is assembling his Merrie Men — sorry, his knights — you sense that Ritchie might be leaning toward a frisky medieval remake of one of his heist comedies. That’d be acceptable, or more so than the numbing digitized action bombast that swamps “King Arthur” again and again.
Are the giant rats Arthur fights in one ridiculous montage a nod to the Rodents of Unusual Size in “The Princess Bride”? Are the sequences that intercut flashbacks, flash-forwards, and the present supposed to be funny or just chronological slurry? The final cataclysm — what is that giant snake doing there? Where do they keep him when he’s not working? So many questions.
In fairness, the movies have never really done right by the legend of Arthur. John Boorman’s “Excalibur” (1981), with Nicol Williamson’s nerdy Merlin and Helen Mirren’s hot Morgana, is as fruit-bat insane as the new film but lots more fun. The kids have Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone” (1963) and foreign-film fans have Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” (1974). The 2004 “King Arthur” was worth it for Keira Knightley’s kickass Guinevere but not much else. “Camelot”? Don’t even start. But “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is stupid enough to send you back to the one movie that did the saga right by ripping it to shreds, 1975’s “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Remember the Knights Who Say Ni? Ritchie’s are the Knights to Whom You’ll Say No.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Ritchie, Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram, and David Dobkin. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 126 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of violence, some suggestive content, brief strong language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.