Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Starring Clive Owen, Ioan Gruffudd, Keira Knightly, Ray Winstone, Stellan Skarsgård, Til Schweiger, Hugh Dancy, Stephen Dillane, Joel Edgerton. (2004, PG-13, 126 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 9, 2004
It’s impossible to watch this Jerry Bruckheimer-produced fanciful re-imagining (but based on a true story!) of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table without waiting, waiting, endlessly waiting for the real King Arthur to stride up with a pair of coconut halves and cut off the arms of these pretenders to the throne. (The image of Graham Chapman hollering, "What’re ya gonna do? Bite my knees off?" Owen’s faux Arthur is one that I would have paid dearly to have interjected into Bruckheimer’s leaden, silly mess.) All Monty Python fantasies aside, Fuqua’s King Arthur has none of the sprightly derring-do of the legend’s previous incarnations; it’s no Excalibur, nor is it even a First Knight – it’s more of a late night at Sir Thomas Malory’s pad, after the mead has run out and the candles are well past guttering and everyone’s tired of attempting to come up with a new way to play Sir Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur). As the precredits tell us, this version of the legend has been updated by recent archeological findings that point – sort of – to the notion that there was, indeed, once a leader of the Britons named Lucius Artorius Castus, in the fifth century and that he was, in point of fact, that British guy from Croupier. (And all these years I thought he’d be Vinnie Jones! C’est la guerre.) In this telling, Arthur and his men are a warrior breed enslaved by the Romans in adolescence and raised to be what amounts to the Empire’s own personal SWAT team. The members of this motley crew are pagans to a one – that one being Arthur, who has somewhere down the line accepted Christ as his personal savior – and a near-barbarous lot who are forced into one last mission before they can return to Rome and a much-deserved bit of R&R. Unfortunately, that ultimate journey involves rescuing a young Roman from the clutches of the impending Saxon hoard, led here by Skarsgård as Cerdic and his equally wild son Cynric (Schweiger, direct from his job playing bass in Queens of the Stone Age, apparently). And then there are the Woads, a nomadic band of forest people (previously seen up past the Do Long Bridge in Apocalypse Now) who count among their number the sexy archer babe Guinevere. Lancelot (Gruffudd), Gawain (Edgerton), and the other knights are here, but in this demystified yet still mystifying version of the old legends, they’re not so much knights, per se, as Roman-owned mercenaries, sent to guard the farthest outpost of the Empire, the rocky and rain-swept land of Britain. The battles, of which there are several, are full of bloodless sword-wielding (this is a PG-13 movie after all) and rains of flaming arrows, but like the rest of Fuqua’s film, even these seem dull and tarnished. Perhaps it’s that we’ve been spoiled by John Boorman’s pristine vision of the Arthurian legends (Excalibur), or perhaps trebuchets and bowmen just don’t carry the crazy weight of Denzel Washington’s 9 mm wielding, psychopathic leader of men in Training Day, but King Arthur is a snooze, overcast and drizzly both on location and on the pages of the script. Owen is too classy, too James Bond-handsome to realistically portray the not-yet-King Arthur; I for one hoped his shield might double as a roulette wheel and that at any moment he’d break out the craps. No such luck. There’s plenty of crap on hand here, but I wouldn’t wager on it.