I’m a little rusty on my Camelot mythology, but I’m pretty sure there is no reputable version of the King Arthur story with a character named Kung Fu George.
He’s alive and well, though, in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which departs radically from traditional versions of the story and, instead, offers something that hopes to catch the attention and perhaps the imagination of today’s youth demo.
Ritchie has been getting a lot of grief for this, but while his movie doesn’t really work, he hasn’t committed sacrilege – Monty Python and the Holy Grail showed that audiences were ready to laugh at the forests-and-fog fustiness of classic versions, and Antoine Fuqua had no lock with his straight-faced King Arthur.
Ritchie gets rid of all that. What’s so shocking about his version is how urban it is. The prologue sends Arthur down the Thames as a swaddled infant, like Moses, where he ends up in Londinium, a thriving and cosmopolitan metropolis where Arthur has an Oliver Twisty childhood, then grows up to run a smuggling ring and a brothel — Dickens meets Game of Thrones (there’s a role for Aidan Gillen, too).
Ritchie may be onto something here — instead of dragging a modern audience into the past, he takes the past and drags it into the present. His multiethnic gang, with their facial hair, tattoos, and Celtic jewelry and garb, looks like the sort of blokes you might meet in a contemporary London pub.
He gives his characters contemporary dialogue and attitudes, mixes action with fantasy elements like the aforementioned Game of Thrones, and uses modern editing/storytelling tricks — when Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) describes a plan to attack a rival, the plotting is interlaced with sequences showing the attack itself, as you might see in an Ocean's Eleven heist movie.
Hunnam is hunky and stolid in the lead, while the rest of the cast has been instructed to have fun. Jude Law, the villain, is the only dude in the cast without facial hair – surely out of fear he would twirl his mustache. He plays Vortigern, who has usurped the throne from Arthur’s dad (Eric Bana) and rules over the kingdom via the fiat of sorcery – his deal with the underworld allows him to hold on to power as long as he’s willing to kill someone he loves.
His black-magic coconspirators inform him that his brother’s son is alive somewhere in the kingdom. So Vortigern requires all young men of the target age to take the only test that can identify the throne’s rightful heir – this one thing still intact from the legend: You must draw the sword Excalibur from the stone. A conscripted Arthur does just that, and against his will (he’s a natural rebel and reluctant king) becomes the rallying point for factions that wish to overthrow the tyrant who has led the kingdom to ruin.
A conventional telling would invoke massed armies and massive battles, but Ritchie sticks to his vision here. Arthur has a crew, a small and feisty band of outcasts (including Kung Fu George), hustlers, and magicians — members of a banished race of people (Astrid Bergès Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou) with supernatural gifts. They scheme to infiltrate Vortigern's castle and take him down.
Here, Ritchie’s strategy completely betrays him. In a sop to video-game consumers, he turns Vortigern into a digital avatar, a fire-breathing horned monster, and also just another boring, insubstantial CGI entity, the kind movies are usually better off without. Certainly, this one would be.