Also, much like The Return of the King, this movie's timing is impeccable, launching at a time when our collective concept of heroism and leadership is in enormous flux. So it's got the fantasy-charisma ticket, the obscure-history ticket, the rollicking-action ticket, the leather-clad sexiness ticket, and even, helmed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, the underrated and similarly themed Tears of the Sun), the directorial-prowess ticket. And yet, despite nearly perfect marks on its formulaic checklist, there's something weirdly unsatisfying about this whole fracas. The movie is much more fun to contemplate than to watch.
We open in 452 A.D., and as Monty Python fans anticipate an extra subtitle like "Saturday Afternoon: About Tea Time," we meet the somber boy Lancelot (Elliot Henderson-Boyle, doubled by Ryan Quayle), who is called into the service of a Roman general named Lucius Artorius Castus (Clive Owen, stern of chin), the "Arthur" of the title. Jump ahead 15 years and you've got right-hand man Lancelot (brilliant Ioan Gruffudd, sporting Jon Bon Jovi's hand-me-downs) riding in Arthur's cavalry alongside other famous names such as Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), and Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), who are all unrepentantly pretty. And then there's Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), who is not particularly pretty, and Bors (the energetic Ray Winstone), who is not pretty at all, but nearly rides off with the movie. Winstone's crude, lewd warrior chews up miles of scenery and hacks it back out. The wisecracking character obviously jazzed up screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator) and seems to reflect some of the more Machiavellian tendencies of Jerry Bruckheimer, the movie's bazillionaire producer. For about half an hour, one wonders if the title should have read King Bors or even King Jerry.
Distracting from such musings, the plot lurches into gear, introducing these "knights" as indentured Sarmatian servants of Rome, protecting Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain under Arthur (actually central Ireland under Bruckheimer). The first of many increasingly tiresome, peculiarly bloodless skirmishes sets the tone, as a Roman bishop is attacked between the fog machines by wild, indigenous Picts -- whom the Romans mockingly call Woads, after the plant the locals use to tattoo themselves -- and Arthur and company ride to the rescue, amid loads of that strobey-choppy shooting and editing that makes potentially classic films look like crappy commercials. But this is just the beginning.
For all its historical accuracy (carefully checked by scholar-authors John Matthews and Linda A. Malcor), its gorgeous sporadic tableaux, and its deafening derring-do, King Arthur is actually a "one-last-mission" movie. Yep. As in nasty Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti) gets pissed off at the legendary Round Table and tells Arthur and his Dirty Half-Dozen that their tour of duty ain't over yet after all. There are some particularly stupid Romans nestled way up north who need rescuing, and it's basically a suicide run, since they're surrounded by the Viet Cong . . . er, the Woads. Worse, those beardie-weirdie Saxons are invading, with Til Schweiger snarling menacingly at the commands of diabolical Stellan Skarsgård, who sounds exactly like Nick Nolte on a three-pack day, which is admittedly quite scary.
Can Arthur and company save the day? Did I yawn so hard that tears literally ran down my cheeks?
But let's get to the real point. Keira Knightley is in this movie. As the Pictish revisionist-Guinevere, she's rescued from a creepy religious oubliette that mysteriously glows bright green and quickly begins showing off her bellybutton in battle. She holds her own, and she holds Arthur's, and she makes him proud to be half-British. Due to Knightley's outrageous beauty and a marketing onslaught bordering on mind-control propaganda, men everywhere now want the teen queen. And, since they've put up with girlfriends and wives openly lusting after her Pirates of the Caribbean co-stars Johnny and Orlando, this seems quite fair. Gentlemen, dream on. Payback is sweet indeed.
If only the sum of this thunderously self-important movie outweighed its often fabulous parts. The shift to the Dark Ages, meticulously researched, is dandy. The eye-candy is engaging. Even Merlin (Stephen Dillane) gets a terrific makeover as a Pictish shaman and tactician, straight out of the designs of genius illustrator Alan Lee. But somewhere between the silly, obtrusively mythic flashback of the sword Excalibur and the gritty "reality" of the climactic Battle of Badon Hill, the movie loses its grip and cheesifies. It resorts to throwing up hollow icons in that most ignoble of losses -- expensive mediocrity.