I'll admit to being disappointed that King Arthur is better than I expected (and not just because I was looking forward to using the headline "Suckscalibur!"). Though the film is basically crap, it is tremendously entertaining and engaging crap: beautifully photographed, edited with masterful precision, and peopled by actors whom I would walk a mile to see stuffing envelopes.
Still, the conceit of the film--that Arthurian legend is based on actual events that took place near the end of the Holy Roman Empire, and that "recent archaeological evidence" has uncovered reliable proof that the mythological figures of Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, et al. were real people--is just plain insulting, even if it's true. Because if it is true, these myth-history heroes and villains deserve a more serious introduction than the director of Training Day and the producer of Pirates of the Caribbean were likely to provide. I'm no medieval scholar, but if I learned that the Knights of the Round Table were actually Roman conscripts, that Merlin was the leader of a quasi-mystical tribe called the Woads, and that Arthur was a half-Roman, proto-Christian philosopher general, my first impulse would not be to turn their story into a craptacular summer blockbuster modeled more closely on Lethal Weapon 3 than Excalibur.
That would, however, be producer Jerry Bruckheimer's first impulse. The frustration is, like with every third or fourth Bruckheimer production, that King Arthur is really enjoyable, in spite of its own stupid flaws.
The story: Arthur (Clive Owen) is the legendary leader of a ragtag band of "knights" (really, they're just a bunch of Sarmatians who were pressed into 15 years of military service by their Roman conquerors), who defend the British countryside from the Woads and other savage threats. On the eve of their freedom from conscription, this merry group is hoodwinked into going on one last mission to save the pope's favorite godson from the Saxon hordes currently eviscerating all Britons. After a lot of bellyaching, the knights agree to the mission (not only because they don't really have a choice, but also because they'd follow their beloved Arthur anywhere). Along the way, they learn a few important lessons about loyalty, treachery, and tyranny. They also meet Guinevere (Keira Knightley), a posh, underfed, and idealistic Woad who's pretty handy with a bow and arrow.
When they get home and gain their nominal freedom, they discover that Rome's pullout may spell the death not only of a lot of innocent Roman subjects (big deal) but of their bro, Arthur. So Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, and the others must make a choice between their own happiness and the safety of their friend. In between, there are many battles, some off-color jokes, and several semi-philosophical, anachronistic discussions about monotheism, honor, duty, and the nature of freedom.
The careful eye (indeed, even the blind one) might detect a few wobbly parallels to the modern age--illegal settlers who need protection from disgruntled natives, an imperial power on the eve of vacating a conquered land, armor-piercing crossbows--but don't worry. These are just overtures toward relevance made so the filmmakers could pretend that King Arthur exists to capitalize on something other than the Lord of the Rings audience. Likewise the myth revision; it's just a ruse. But you're guaranteed to do a lot more cringing than learning. If you're going to accept this film (and you are), it's going to have to be on its merits as a dumb action picture. Antoine Fuqua really knows his way around the epic battle sequences, conferring dimension, strategy, and suspense on scenes that could have easily wound up as mere melees. One skirmish in particular, set on a frozen lake, is as inventive and thrilling as any set piece Peter Jackson ever produced.
The other saving grace is, of course, the cast--Keira Knightley's big nothing notwithstanding. The knights are winningly rugged and convincingly fraternal, the villain (Stellan Skarsg'rd) is appropriately brutal, and all the Romans are good and nasty. There are no big stars in King Arthur, but if anyone in the film deserves to be one, it's Clive Owen. His heroic performance in the lead role elevates the film beyond its own silly clichés and into the realm of respectability. Though I'm a huge Owen fan, I wasn't sure I'd buy him as Arthur; I worried that he would seem too interesting or wounded to be a straight-up hero. Wrong. Clive Owen's Arthur is a charismatic philosopher and a badass warrior you'd happily follow anywhere--even into a Jerry Bruckheimer film.