What happens when two big-time, street-savvy Hollywood moviemakers, a couple of guys who often seem most comfortable firing off guns and crashing cars all over L.A., sink their teeth into the Middle Ages and the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table?
Bruckheimer and Fuqua hand us a gritty pre-King Arthur (Clive Owen) and a down-and-dirty Round Table, along with a deadly Guinevere (Keira Knightley), a forest rebel Merlin (Stephen Dillane), a bitter killing-machine Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), some tyrannical, depraved-looking Romans and a horde of dirty, blood-crazed Saxons led by nasty warrior king Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard), milling around in savage discontent or marching on grim, gray castles under a grim, gray sky.
Since the movie is allegedly about the horrendous 6th Century Battle of Badon Hill, and the script's approach is described by screenwriter David Franzoni ("Gladiator," "Amistad") as both the "true story" of King Arthur and "King Arthur and The Wild Bunch," we also get mass slaughter, grungy heavies, fields running with blood, slow-motion violence and machine-gun editing.
Overall, "King Arthur" sinks into a grim, gray torpor - though it's an odd, not unentertaining movie. The approach is different, if not edifying or convincing. There is some fine cloudy cinematography by Krzysztof Kieslowski's old collaborator Slawomir Idziak ("A Short Film About Killing") and one outrageously crazy action set-piece: Arthur and his knights suckering a troop of Saxons into a charge over increasingly fragile, arrow-weakened ice.
According to Franzoni, there's supposed to be a historical rationale for all this. The seemingly mythical Arthur here becomes a real-life figure: Lucius Artorius Castorus, a Roman-British general for the Roman forces occupying Britain. Owens' Arthur-Artorius has long since assembled his bonded-male Round Table and now must choose between his treacherous Roman overlords and his persecuted British countrymen as Cerdic's barbarian hordes descend. They are a cretinous-looking mob who burn down villages as a matter of policy.
Franzoni also imagines Lancelot (played by Gruffudd, TV's Horatio Hornblower) as part of a traditional band of captured Samartian knights who signed themselves over to Marcus Aurelius several centuries ago. When Guinevere pops up, she's played by "Pirates of the Caribbean's'|" Knightley as a frowning lass in leather-strap cheesecake who draws a mean bow.
There also are some juicy performances from a gifted cast, the two standouts being Skarsgard as the proudly awful Cerdic and Ray Winstone as lusty, boorish Sir Bors, a great roaring beefsteak-faced bully-knight. Although the rest of the cast is good, this is the sort of movie where only the really gifted screamers or close-up hounds make a real impression.
Certainly Owen, as Arthur, has presence. The dour Brit of both Altman's "Gosford Park" and Mike Hodges' "Croupier" is a real noir actor, a Bogart type who looks as if he'd glimpsed too much of life's dark side. This glum Arthur suits the glum landscape and overall atmosphere of sadism and imminent death.
But what's most wrong about the movie is the mixed evocation of a medieval morass shot in hip, flashy images. The style clashes and self-destructs, never more than when, at the end, Fuqua makes a stab at evoking that greatest of all battle movies, Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" - with six knights left to help Arthur and the Briton villagers against Cerdic's hordes.
Even to recall Kurosawa is to recognize what this movie lacks: a sense of compassionate humanism to soften its grimness and violence. This "King Arthur's" idea of an idealistic, humane touch is to hand a bow to Guinevere.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua; written by David Franzoni; photographed by Slawomir Idziak; edited by Conrad Buff, Jamie Pearson; production designed by Dan Weil; music by Hans Zimmer; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:10. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense battle sequences, a scene with sensuality and some language.)
Arthur (Lucius Artorius Castus) - Clive Owen
Lancelot - Ioan Gruffud
Bors - Ray Winstone
Guinevere - Keira Knightley
Merlin - Stephen Dillane
Cerdic - Stellan Skarsgard
Tristan - Mads Mikkelsen
Galahad - Hugh Dancy