King Arthur feels less like a complete movie of its own, and more like a fairly competent pilot for a cable TV series — something on, say, USA or TNT.
It’s being as touted as the story before the story, of sorts — its argument being that everyone knows the story of Arthur’s royal reign, with its infidelities and interference through magic.
A scroll over the opening credits reads that archaeological evidence suggests the Arthurian myth was modeled after a real man. Whether that’s true is a historian’s debate. As written by David Franzoni, Arthur as a character is modeled after Maximus from Gladiator, which Franzoni also co-wrote.
Though it’s a blatant aping, the potential of a political bent to this tale is realized nicely, if not woven as delicately into the action as it was in that movie. Franzoni creates a credible chain of events that erodes the reasons for which Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have been fighting for years. And he metes out proportions of angst against action with greater care than Spider-Man 2.
Still, the whole affair feels rushed to fit a two-hour time slot, hypothesizing that the Knights of the Round Table were actually indentured soldier servants to the Roman Empire, bound to fight for 15 years by a pact involving their fathers, who survived a brutal earlier attack by the Romans.
Their leader is Arthur (Clive Owen), who has balanced the British and Roman interests as best he can. That is, until the Romans pull a fast one on them, demanding one more mission before they get their walking papers. As Arthur and his knights slowly discover the hypocrisy and degradation of their ideals for the Roman Empire, their quest instead becomes one to unite the people of Britain.
To help them, they enlist the Woads, a people who have what looks like blue Maybelline eyeshadow all over their bodies and Tyson-like facial tattoos. They’re led by a non-magical Merlin (Stephen Dillane) and given spunk by a warrior Guinevere (Keira Knightley, who despite the girl-power look of the ads, is pretty much window-dressing here). Their enemy is the bloodthirsty Saxon people, led by Cerdic who, as played by Stellan Skarsgard, resembles Captain Caveman with the sadistic punk stylings of Gary Oldman.
Director Antoine Fuqua, no doubt hired for his resume as an action director, actually handles the dramatic scenes better than anything else. The action sequences are bloodless and poorly pruned back to be that way. The climactic battle has some thrilling moments, but still feels anticlimactic, especially because the Woads do most of the work.
Only a confrontation atop a frozen pond thrills consistently, and even that suffers from some silly staging. (Why don’t those 200 pesky Saxons just fire at will their armor-piercing arrows against the seven knights and Guinevere?)
Furthermore, if this is supposed to be a grittier, more realistic version of the tale, why the anachronistic jokes about anatomic size? And because John Woo has cornered the market on doves as lame bird symbolism, Fuqua has to settle for a hawk.
Also, the torrid love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot (played by Ioan Gruffudd as too much of a whining ninny) is all but gone, although Franzoni and Fuqua would have been wise to beef it up to make a key final scene more resonant.
It’s so-so, in the way that you’d only check it out every so often to see what Art and his buddies are up to this time, but not every week.