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With: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffund, Stellan Skarsgard, Hugh Dancy, Joel Edgerton, Stephen Dillane, Mads Mikkelsen
Written by: David Franzoni
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality and some language
Running Time: 139
Date: 06/28/2004

King Arthur (2004)

1 Star (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jerry Bruckheimer's new King Arthur supposedly tells the "true story" of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, basing its claim on "recent archeological findings."

Unfortunately, the legend was a whole lot more fun and interesting than what we get here; King Arthur plays more like a stupid Hollywood action movie than a true story.

Arthur (Clive Owen) is shown as a half-Briton, half-Roman who, with the familiar Knights of the Round Table: Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Gawain (Joel Edgerton) and others, is indebted to fight for fifteen years for Roman-controlled England.

Their fifteen years almost up, the crew looks forward to the taste of freedom. But they are called upon to do one last big task, which of course will be the (yawn) most dangerous they've ever faced.

This last task is nothing as cool as seeking the Holy Grail. Rather, it involves battling a much larger army of evil Saxons, led by Cedric (Stellan Skarsgard) -- we can identify the Saxons as evil because they sneer and glare at each other a lot -- and incidentally rescuing a captive Guinevere (Keira Knightley).

In the age of Buffy and Xena, this Guinevere is a master archer, able to fight in the freezing cold wearing only a flimsy, low-cut dress. (Couldn't one of these chivalrous knights offer her a scarf or something?) She poses and pouts as if constantly aware of a Cosmopolitan photographer just off to the sidelines.

Merlin (Stephen Dillane) shows up too, but he's part of a painted tribe of primitives living in the woods. And with all that face paint on it's difficult to identify him from among a handful of other painted actors. Certainly he doesn't stroke his long white beard or do magic tricks.

This new "true story" is wrapped up in a package of stilted speeches about how every man is born free and equal (and yet someone still gets to be the king), as well as muddled battle scenes and far too many generic "walking-and-talking" scenes, which bad directors use when they can't think of a more interesting way to stage a conversation. Yet, this wouldn't be so much of a problem if the dialogue weren't so horrid.

It's not surprising to learn that King Arthur came from the pen of David Franzoni, one of the so-called writers behind the wretched Gladiator. But director Antoine Fuqua should know better. Fuqua did such a remarkable job with Training Day (2001), coaxing powerfully subtle performances from his actors and creating a tense atmosphere of unknown fear. But, his other films are half-baked, quasi-pretentious action epics (The Replacement Killers, Tears of the Sun), and King Arthur fits right in with those.

It's the actors who really suffer here. None of them appear to be on the same page. It's never clear that Arthur and Guinevere are supposed to be falling in love, and the previously fascinating and heartbreaking love triangle with Lancelot hardly exists.

Even the chivalry is gone. The knights now look like a pack of unshaven, roaming misfits, proudly wearing their scars and their matted, dreadlocked hair (or trendy shaved heads). Bors (Ray Winstone) is the only character with any personality at all, breaking through the movie's dreary fabric with bits of rollicking humor.

Winstone's miniscule glimmer of life is the only thing that brings King Arthur anywhere near its cousin, Bruckheimer's wildly entertaining and lively summer hit Pirates of the Caribbean (2003).

For a much more penetrating, artful look at Arthur and his knights, seek out Robert Bresson's Lancelot of the Lake (1974), recently released on DVD by New Yorker Video. Even the comic telling in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is better than this.

DVD Details: Touchstone's new DVD boasts the new "director's cut," including "intense" footage not shown in theaters. It was the action that killed King Arthur, so I doubt the new cut is any better. What it really needed was better writing. Either way, since it made my "worst of 2004" list, I decided that life was just too short to sit through it again to find out. Otherwise, we have an alternate ending, a director commentary track, a photo gallery, a trivia track, various featurettes, and a demo for the obligatory video game.

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