The NY Times

MOVIE REVIEW | 'KING ARTHUR'

The Once and Future Fury: Knights Go for the Jugular
By A. O. SCOTT


King Arthur," which opens today nationwide, claims to be "the untold true story that inspired the legend." In the name of accuracy, apparently, some familiar legendary elements have been altered or dropped altogether. Merlin (Stephen Dillane), it turns out, was not a magician but the shadowy leader of the Woads, a guerrilla army of Pictish freedom fighters with stringy hair, blue faces and tattooed bodies. Since the knights of the Round Table are stubbornly pagan (and skeptical of their leader's Christianity, which is wobbly at best), they are not about to go off in search of the Holy Grail. And though Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) at one point casts a smoldering glance in the direction of Guinevere (Keira Knightley), nothing more comes of the mythic triangle of king, queen and knight. Lancelot, in any case, is more of a fighter than a lover, and so, in spite of an obligatory cuddle with Arthur on the night before the big battle, is Guinevere.

Historians will debate the veracity of all this, assuming they have nothing better to do. But it will be clear to most moviegoers that this true story, far from being untold, was inspired by at least a half-dozen previous movies, from "The Seven Samurai" to "Braveheart."

David Franzoni, the screenwriter, also wrote "Gladiator," and Clive Owen's Arthur, like Russell Crowe's Maximus, both faithfully serves the Roman empire and turns against its authoritarian abuses. He and his knights are sent on a rescue mission that recalls the one undertaken by Bruce Willis in "Tears of the Sun," the previous movie directed by Antoine Fuqua, who directed "King Arthur."

Really, though, originality is not the point of this movie, any more than historical verisimilitude is. It is a blunt, glowering B picture, shot in murky fog and battlefield smoke, full of silly-sounding pomposity and swollen music (courtesy of the prolifically bombastic Hans Zimmer). The combat scenes, though boisterous and brutal, are no more coherent than the story, which requires almost as much exposition as the last "Star Wars" movie. Luckily there is an element of broad, brawny camp that prevents "King Arthur" from being a complete drag.

In this version Arthur's knights are a ragged band of foreign conscripts stationed in the shadow of Hadrian's Wall, where they fight an occasional skirmish with the pesky Woads, who gyre and gimble in the wabe. Arthur's mixed parentage he is half Roman and half British results in an identity crisis as he simultaneously grows disillusioned with the corruption and cruelty of Rome and succumbs to Guinevere's Woady charms.

Arthur's men, for reasons efficiently explained in the first 10 minutes of the movie, are required to serve the empire for 15 years. They complain about the English weather, which was even drearier back in the fifth century, but their devotion to Arthur is absolute. Although they have earned their freedom, the knights are sent off on one last mission, which acquaints them with both the evils committed in the name of Rome and its church, and with the threat of the Saxon invaders, who are waging a vicious war of conquest with armor-piercing arrows and the scariest blond hair extensions since "White Chicks."

Cerdic, the Saxon leader, is played by Stellan Skarsgard, whose halting, throaty delivery and gleefully hammy villainy confirm his stature as the Swedish Christopher Walken. Cerdic's lieutenant is his son Cynric (Til Schweiger), who sports a spiffy plaited soul patch and a slightly different accent, and who leads the Saxons into a battle on the ice that is the film's most original and satisfying set piece. The rest of it is mostly grunting, roaring and hacking, conducted by some fine, cheerfully slumming actors, notably Ray Winstone (as a lusty, cantankerous knight named Bors) and Mads Mikkelsen (as the enigmatic Tristan).

Arthur, who will somehow establish freedom for England by being declared its king, is a worrier as well as a warrior, and Mr. Owen brings a certain wariness to the role, as if he were, like his character, reluctant to commit the full force of his charisma to a cause he doesn't quite understand. Ms. Knightley, on the other hand, throws herself bodily into every scene, sighing her way through the gauzy love-making montage and appearing at the climactic battle the next morning in face paint and a smashing leather combat brassiere, hurling herself at the Saxon invaders with full-throated Woad rage.

"King Arthur" is rated PG-13. Its brutal battle scenes have been carefully edited to minimize gore, and its lone sex scene does not reveal too much skin.

KING ARTHUR

Directed by Antoine Fuqua; written by David Franzoni; director of photography, Slawomir Idziak; edited by Conrad Buff and Jamie Pearson; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Dan Weil; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer; released by Touchstone Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Running time: 130 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Clive Owen (Arthur), Ioan Gruffudd (Lancelot), Mads Mikkelsen (Tristan), Joel Edgerton (Gawain), Hugh Dancy (Galahad), Ray Winstone (Bors), Ray Stevenson (Dagonet), Keira Knightley (Guinevere), Stephen Dillane (Merlin), Stellan Skarsgard (Cerdic) and Til Schweiger (Cynric).

 

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