King Arthur Movie Review
Fast forward 12 months. Bruckheimer brings back the costumes, the swordplay, another talented but mildly-experienced director, and his discovery Knightley, this time in a leather S&M get-up. Add the writer of Gladiator. Can the formula work again?
Well, yes, but only for an hour or so. King Arthur, a "historical" version of the British myth, strips away the magic of Camelot for the cold filth of the Dark Ages. Unlike Pirates, it's more epic than big goof, but it runs out of horses right when it needs its biggest boost.
The film begins strongly, pulsing energy from the camaraderie and charisma of the Knights of the Round Table. Sadly, the final act spins into a predictable death spiral of groaner clichés, stock images, and hordes with swords. No longer is King Arthur about a man who became a legend; instead, it's Brave-Troy-Gladiator-Heart of the Rings.
Director Antoine Fuqua, who set some kind of Guinness World Record for ominousness in 2001's excellent Training Day, trades the grit of Los Angeles for a fifth-century Britain that's composed entirely of smoke, mud, dust and ice.
In spite of the bleakness of the landscape, the land is a hot spot for conquering. While Arthur and his special forces venture one last mission before securing their walking papers from the retreating Romans, brutal Saxon forces are sweeping southward, burning every village that stands between them and dominion. This new threat forces the primitive woodland Woads to ally with their former occupiers to defend their home.
Arthur's wild bunch bears a convincing chemistry of very different men who have jelled after years of fighting together. Although they crave their impending freedom from servitude, a particularly nasty lord shatters Arthur's precious Roman ideals as mere myths. The knights' loss of purpose in the face of a massive invading army forces them to choose between fleeing the country they once guarded for a foreign power, or standing up for the people they once controlled.
Clive Owen's (Croupier) Arthur is neither as steely as Russell Crowe's Maximus nor as bombastic as Mel Gibson's William Wallace, but he carries the weight of a man who perseveres even as his world crumbles around him. Rumors currently place Owen as the next James Bond, a role he could fill with refreshing edginess. He's a delight.
The yang to Arthur's vigorous defense of liberty is the genocidal Saxon conqueror Cerdic, played with quiet menace by Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting). Skarsgård dominates all his scenes with soft-spoken psychopathic fervor and boundless villainy.
The Knights take on the Saxons twice, once brilliantly on a frozen lake, and again at closer range in the obligatory final battle. It's in the last 30 minutes that the movie breaks down. Instead of continuing to twist the Arthurian legend, Fuqua chooses to photocopy countless cheeseball images and story devices from the past decade of plate-armor war epics: The boss gives his requisite pep talk on horseback. Knights ride out from the smoke. The generals go hand-to-hand. Hundreds of arrows fill the air. It's like a clip show for the genre, and it's embarrassing.
The anti-climax leaves a bland aftertaste that drowns out the pleasures of the previous chapters. Even the body-painted Knightley can't save the limp final fracas. But worry not, fans of costume battles. Oliver Stone's Alexander is coming this fall. Now there's a guy who knows how to do violence right. [Oops. -Ed.]
My body art will win this war!