Behold what is, in theory, the thinking person's ideal summer blockbuster. King Arthur features some of the planet's most beautiful people, dressed way sexily, gallantly galloping about and bashing one another with all manner of implements amid lush vistas and robustly appointed sets. Add an intriguing historical pedigree and apparently unprecedented narrative convention, which plunks this Arthur and his knights into what a title card helpfully designates as "a period often called the Dark Ages." Thus academically illuminated, you need feel no guilt over the real reasons you'll see this "true story," those being called Keira, Clive, and/or Ioan.
Also, much like The Return of the King, this movie's timing is impeccable, launching when (using the most generous terms) our collective concept of heroism and leadership is in enormous flux. So it's got the fantasy-charisma ticket, the obscure history ticket, the rollicking action ticket, the leather-clad sexiness ticket, and even, helmed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, and the underrated and similarly themed Tears of the Sun), the directorial prowess ticket. And yet, despite nearly perfect marks on its formulaic checklist, there's something weirdly unsatisfying about this whole fracas. The movie is much more fun to contemplate than to watch.
We open in 452 A.D., and, as Monty Python fans anticipate an extra subtitle like Saturday Afternoon: About Tea Time, we meet the somber boy Lancelot (Elliot Henderson-Boyle, doubled by Ryan Quayle), who is called into service for a Roman general named Lucius Artorius Castus (Clive Owen, stern of chin), the Arthur of the title. Cut ahead 15 years, and you've got right-hand man Lancelot (brilliant Ioan Gruffudd, sporting Jon Bon Jovi's hand-me-downs), riding in Arthur's cavalry alongside other famous names such as Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), and Tristan (Mads Mikkelson), who are all equally unrepentantly pretty. And then there's Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), who is not particularly pretty, and Bors (the energetic Ray Winstone), who is not pretty at all but nearly rides off with the movie. Winstone's crude, lewd warrior chews up miles of scenery and hacks it back out. The wisecracking character obviously jazzed up screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator) and seems to reflect some of the more Machiavellian tendencies of the movie's bazillionaire producer. For about half an hour, one wonders if the title should have read King Bors or even King Jerry.
But the plot at last lurches into gear, introducing these knights as Sarmatian indentured servants of Rome, protecting Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain under Arthur (actually central Ireland under Bruckheimer). The first of many increasingly tiresome, peculiarly bloodless skirmishes sets the tone, as a Roman bishop is attacked between the fog machines by wild, indigenous Picts -- whom the Romans mockingly call Woads, after the plant the locals use to tattoo themselves -- and Arthur & Co. ride to the rescue amid loads of that strobey-choppy shooting and editing, which makes potentially classic films look like crappy commercials. But this is just the beginning.
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For all its historical accuracy (carefully checked by scholar-authors John Matthews and Linda A. Malcor), its sporadic gorgeous tableaux, and its deafening derring-do, King Arthur is actually -- oh no, please, Lord Jesu! -- a One Last Mission movie. Yep. Nasty Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti) gets pissed off at the legendary Round Table and tells Arthur and his Dirty Half-dozen that their tour of duty ain't over yet after all: There are some particularly stupid Romans nestled way up north who need rescuing. It's basically a suicide run, since they're surrounded by the Viet Cong... er, the Woads. Worse, those beardie-weirdie Saxons are invading, with Til Schweiger snarling menacingly at the commands of diabolical Stellan Skarsgård, who sounds exactly like Nick Nolte on a three-pack day, which is admittedly quite scary.
Can Arthur & Co. save the day? Did I yawn so hard that tears literally ran down my cheeks?
But let's get to the real point. Keira Knightley is in this movie. As the Pictish revisionist Guinevere, she's rescued from a creepy religious oubliette that mysteriously glows bright green, and quickly begins showing off her bellybutton in battle. She holds her own, and she holds Arthur's, and she makes him proud to be half-British. Due to Knightley's outrageous beauty and a marketing onslaught bordering on mind-control propaganda, men everywhere now want the teen queen. And, since they've put up with girlfriends and wives openly lusting after her Pirates of the Caribbean co-stars Johnny and Orlando, this seems quite fair. Gentlemen, dream on. Payback is sweet indeed.
If only this thunderously self-important movie's sum outweighed its often fabulous parts. The shift to the Dark Ages, meticulously researched, is dandy. The eye-candy is engaging. Even Merlin (Stephen Dillane) gets a terrific makeover as a Pictish shaman and tactician straight out of the designs of genius illustrator Alan Lee. But somewhere between the silly, obtrusively mythic flashback of the sword Excalibur and the gritty "reality" of the climactic Battle of Badon Hill, the movie loses its grip and cheesifies. It resorts to throwing up hollow icons in that most ignoble of losses, expensive mediocrity.