Photo by Jonathan Hession
Letting Jerry Bruckheimer and Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua take charge of the Arthurian legend is a little like asking Courtney Love to play Anne of Green Gables. No sissy daydream of Camelot, love triangles and the seeds of democracy for these two — they’re after a real hero, as red in tooth and claw, if not quite as blue of face, as Mel Gibson’s William Wallace. So they dug around in the dumpster of British history, to the Dark Ages, an era surely optioned by God for the exclusive use of action directors. And lo! They came upon a live one, a fifth-century warrior named Lucius Artorius Castus (Arthur to you), a half-Roman, half-Briton warrior who shilled for the declining Roman Empire in the far-flung outpost of England, and who thought nothing of killing scores of his fellow Angles before destiny overtook him.
Fuqua has given Arthur a round table — an attractive item with a hole in the middle to accommodate a heating system — that’s rather too big for his six samurai, er, knights (soon to be seven when a woman joins the pack), who drape themselves around it like half a board meeting trying to look like a quorum. Still, don’t be misled by the chain mail and pre-medieval diction: King Arthur is fundamentally a remake of The Wild Bunch, with a goofy feminist bonus. Though Arthur is played by British actor Clive Owen, he has a flinty eye and a man’s-gotta-do set to his carved lips — he’s an all-American Arthur for the ages, crying freedom while clobbering anyone who gets in his way. The action unfolds in England (Ireland, actually, but it’ll do fine), a green and unpleasant land where the snowblowers go full blast, mist rises to all occasions, and drenching rain brings more misery than barbarians at the gate ever could. As the movie opens, Arthur and his men — played by a pack of talented Brits that includes the fetching Ioan Gruffudd as a smoldering Lancelot and Ray Winstone as Bors, a brawling family man — have been playing cop for the Romans for 15 years, and are now looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet. Their hopes are dashed when Rome sends out orders for the inevitable final mission, which strands them and the bedraggled locals they’ve rescued (among them Guinevere, daughter of Merlin retooled as a violet-faced guerrilla) smack in the path of a vast army of hostile Saxons with blond braids hanging from their chins, led by Stellan Skarsgärd, whose idea of a military strategy is “Burn all the villages, kill everyone.” Though the movie’s first full-court battle scene plays out on a sheet of fragile ice that divides the Saxons and the knights, David Franzoni’s fried hybrid of a screenplay often makes it seem as though the real struggle is a linguistic face-off between the Cockneys (“Wo’ a bloody mess!” bellows Winstone, like a demented soccer hooligan surveying the remains the of the stadium) and the neo-biblicals (“What tomorrow brings we cannot know,” sighs Arthur with the dignity of one destined for movie greatness).
Will the knights return to help Arthur achieve new heights once their mission is completed and Rome has granted them their discharge papers? Ay, marry they will, for there’s one last round of hand-held combat to be fought, and it’s a total blast, all breastplates, machetes and other period-correct weaponry, and flocks of flaming arrows overhead — the most accurate of which are shot by Guinevere herself. There’s precious little chivalry here, and precious little needed. Far from the coy flirt of most Arthurian fantasy, this Guinevere is a killing machine who’s more comfortable attired in indigo paint and a chain-mail bra than in damask and wimple. Never mind that the filmmakers have Guinevere confused with Boadicea, the woad-covered woman warrior of fledgling Britain, who is the subject of no less than four upcoming movies. The young Keira Knightley, a dead ringer for Winona Ryder, has yet to convince me she can act — Pirates of the Caribbean doesn’t count, and she was adorably awful in the television adaptation of Doctor Zhivago. As Guinevere, at least, she’s a sight to behold, charging into the fray, spearing and garroting as she goes, and all this but a day after nipping uninvited into Arthur’s tent in her undies and wiping the virginal look off his face with a little offscreen nookie. For all I know, Franzoni’s version of the story, historically speaking, may be as much a load of old bollocks as all that Excalibur guff. But if King Arthur is as magnificently ridiculous as any Bruckheimer picture, its thuggish charms, which owe as much to Monty Python as to Sam Peckinpah, more than pick up the slack.
KING ARTHUR | Directed by ANTOINE FUQUA | Written by DAVID FRANZONI | Produced by JERRY BRUCKHEIMER | Released by Touchstone Pictures | Citywide