Worth A Look: 18.12%
Pretty Bad: 30.87%
Total Crap: 23.49%
6 reviews, 113 user ratings
|King Arthur (2004)
by Marc Kandel
Honey, could you sprinkle some Arthurian legend on the “Braveheart” leftovers and just throw it in the microwave for 2-3 minutes on Bruckheimerize? Oh, by the way, John Boorman called, farted over the phone, and hung up snickering. Wonder what that was all about?So I made a bargain… I would watch “King Arthur” with my girlfriend, a film I have scrupulously avoided, for the chance for us to finally take a gander at “Napoleon Dynamite”, a film that has persistently eluded my efforts to see it (particularly as my fiancée is equally resistant to the latter film as I am to the former). Compromise reached. I really wanted to paint a wall in my home, or draw, or set my face on fire, or do something else with my Friday evening rather than struggle through another sub-“Excalibur” Arthurian outing, but the deal was struck. At least it wouldn’t be the menstrual moping on display in “Mists of Avalon” or the uncomfortable movie of the week dissatisfaction of “Merlyn.” Thus began my Netflix account, and my journey into Antoine Fuqua’s “King Arthur”.
"A dream to some… A NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS!"
“King Arthur” doesn’t really bring much of anything new to the table, other than its immediate goal- a non-mystical down and dirty Braveheart/Gladiator-style retelling of the Arthur legend based in some shaky historical revisionism on how a real Arthur and his Knights might have actually fit into history. There is no magic, no fantasy- This is Arthur “for real”- the flesh and blood core of the legends, the people about whom legends will be told, or so we are told again and again and again through ham-handed dialogue (indeed, there are times, it seems as if the character of Guinevere exists for no other reason).
Now if your producer is Jerry Bruckheimer, all of this is accomplished by sponging a little dirt and blue paint on the faces of some recognizable formulaic characters (not actors mind you, I have a great deal of respect for many of the players in this cast), hiring “Braveladiator’s” fight choreographer to show people how to do a flurry of parries and a decap or two, throwing in some underwhelmingly typified “I can’t but I must!”-dialogue, and then setting the whole thing to a Hans Zimmer score that sounds like someone taking out the vocal track on a Chieftans’ tune and then playing it over one of the slower orchestral moments from ANY of his other scores. This then, is “King Arthur.”
As to how it stands up amongst is Arthurian predecessors and epic colleagues, well let me put it this way- Even many non-epic films have the signature father/son chat where the world-wise father imparts the moral wisdom of the ages to the son. “King Arthur” is no exception- but when this moment falls emotionally and intellectually short of virtually the same scene in “A Knight’s Tale”… Well, you see where I’m going with this right?
Artorius Castus is a mixed heritage lad born of Roman conqueror and Briton conquered. Arthur’s family has proved themselves able and loyal to Rome enough to be given stewardship over the Britons, where he and his band of impressed knights gathered from the tribal land of Sarmatia (which is evidently somewhere on the British Isles, yet is confusingly enough, not representative of the Britons in the film) battle the Saxon encroachments as well as the Briton rebels that are unwilling to submit to Roman rule, here called Woads (historically, I’m not sure if these are supposed to represent Celts or Picts), who are called such for the blue dye they paint themselves with. Go ahead, say it like Elmer Fudd- “wwWooooawd.” You know you want to. The Woads are led by an enigmatic leader known as Merlin, who sees in Arthur a man whom the Britons can rally behind. oooooooh.
While I can already picture the stable of historians at A&E laughing their heads off during this film- or muttering bitter curses- one of the two, I myself am a bit of a layman on this topic, and I learned back in high school that history and entertainment are mutually exclusive entities most of the time, with very little overlap. So let's leave the history aside and judge the movie as the entertainment it is supposed to be. As long as an interesting, competent story can be told I can forgive a little artistic license (as I did with "Braveheart").
Now I already have a favorite Arthurian film, John Boorman's “Excalibur,” that is so well crafted, so magnificent, so poignant, that anything that comes after is doomed to fail in my eyes, even if this neophyte Arthur story is attempting to give us a different perspective, which I applaud. But after viewing, and being as fair as I can be, I can say honestly that "King Arthur" will not have the lasting resonance as it's far superior predecessor. It is a watchable, dressed-up action movie- no more.
“King Arthur” eventually reaches the level of reasonably entertaining, after about 30 minutes of mind-numbing exposition and stiff foreshadowing, as it ponderously introduces the players as children and then as warriors 15 years later (a grueling, uneventful 30-35 minutes where I found myself contemplating the micro-universes that might live between the atoms on my fingernails). From there the story picks up as the indentured knights are nearing their last day of service to Rome, the day they can rejoin their peoples in the enigmatic land of non-Briton Sarmatia, only to find that Mother Rome is reneging on its deal, and sending the warriors out on one last suicide mission to rescue one of Rome’s politically influential families from a hoard of invading Saxons (aka the Vikings, led by Stellan Skarsgard- in one of the more appropriate roles I’ve seen him in).
During the course of this rescue, Arthur learns that not only is Rome pretty shitty at keeping promises, but they also have a spectacularly awful version of what Christianity is all about- or a pretty typical one, if you do know your history. The poor exist to cringe and serve, the rich get richer, and if you aren’t Christian, die (or be walled up with gibbering Christian Evangelists- a fate worse than death). Wow. The Bush administration built their time machine after all.
Naturally, this comes as a bit of a shock to Arthur (though amusingly enough, the rest of his crew are much, much faster on the uptake making him look pretty much like a clueless twit), and he begins to question where his loyalty lies- luckily, the wecently wescued Woad woman, Guinevere, aside from being a starved, tortured (minus the actual torture scars), fatigued prisoner of war, is also an excellent Woad recruiter, barely taking two steps out of the dungeon before embarking on a spirited campaign of Woad conversion on Arthur and Lancelot the likes of which would make the most door-slam dodging Jehovah’s witness blanche with envy. It’s a ridiculous role, serviced as well as possible by everyone’s favorite carny attraction, Keira Knightley the unattainable human skeleton, minus her breasts which appear to have been cut off Amazon-style for her warrior woman role. Mercifully, the twins appear to have made a full recovery and are back to their normal standard of the proverbial dead-heat in a Zeppelin race most Hollywood starlets are expected to maintain.
We have seen the evil empire vs. the pure-hearted yet conflicted warrior trapped between country and common man, we’ve seen the panoramic, gritty, hire an amputee so you can really see limbs get lopped off battles before, and we’ve seen the aerial tracking shot of the rolling hills of Britain/Rome/Tunisia/Mars/Sesame Street before. So what’s different here? Nothing folks. Absolutely nothing. Even the roles themselves will have the audience silently mouthing the lines seconds before the actor’s say them. We have your unbeatable yet quietly humble leader who only wants to do the right thing (Arthur/Maximus/Rob Roy/William Wallace...), his equally conflicted yet steadfastly loyal friend (Lancelot/Alan MacDonald (Rob Roy)/Robert the Bruce (Braveheart)/ Juba (Gladiator)), the burly, angry “Waill, we dinna git drissed oop fer noothin” drinking buddy with a heart of gold (Bors/Hamish Campbell (Braveheart)/ Hagen (Gladiator)/every other extra in Rob Roy), the passionate, alluring yet independent and capable maiden (Guinevere/ Lucilla (Gladiator)/ Mary MacGregor(Rob Roy), Princess Isabelle (Braveheart)), and the wise old man who knows your destiny/teaches you how to think (Merlin/ Marcus Aurelius (Gladiator)/ Argyle Wallace (Braveheart)/Rob Roy himself to his own sons).
I know its a gratuitous list- but I just have to call at least one movie on this repeatedly aped formula. I haven’t even included any of the more recent “epics”, nor the villains that populate all of them. This movie even sports a red-shirt character straight out of “Star Trek”- a knight of the round table whose name is unfamiliar to the Arthurphiles out there that you just know he’s gonna get it, especially after we have a short moment of him waving to a kid he has bonded with – hah! Caught you! You’re trying to make me care about you in a less than 15 second establishing shot! Instant kiss of death. Point is, these are the Knights of the Round Table- characters in lesser epics should evoke or resemble them in spirit, not the other way around.
The actors all do their jobs with the material they have- nobody turns in a bad performance, but then again, neither do they reach the peaks they are capable of- it’s impossible to do so considering the lack of material. Clive Owen- so masterful and textured in “Croupier” gives the screen the requisite upturned icy stare with clenched jaw, and when he speaks, yeah, we believe him. Sure. Why not? He’s Clive Owen- we know he can act. It’s the film’s choice of Arthur as a stamped out clone of every other epic action hero from the last ten to fifteen years that I’m not into. Same goes for Ioan Gruffudd, whose title role in the “Horatio Hornblower” series on A&E was some of the finest TV offered to the viewing public. Gruffaud makes a spirited, likeable Lancelot, but it’s a neutered Lancelot- devoid of the fanatic chivalry, not so much as brushing Guinevere’s thigh accidentally with his cod piece. The flirtation is there, but that’s all it is- harmless banter. Gruffudd’s exceptional abilities are wasted.
Stellan Skarsgard is a fun standout in his role as the unflappable, uncompromising Saxon war chief. There are some great moments between him and his son whom he spends most of the film either humiliating or subtly protecting and looking out for him. It is a surprisingly deep interplay between two characters which is totally abandoned in the climactic battle just as easily as Arthur’s Christianity is by the end of the film, despite never coming to terms with his beliefs vs. Rome’s interpretation of his beliefs vs. the pagan Woads who offer him a different path- after all, why bother wrapping these ends up when we can make the music louder and show guys slow-motion swinging swords from atop horses or just chant “Arthur” over and over?
All the conflict, the heartbreak, the consequences, the dreams of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlyn, Camelot- evidently this is left to the inspiration the pseudo-reality leaves behind- I do understand the choice, after all this story has been told in countless permutations, but these essential ingredients have captivated and inspired people through the ages- the dream, the goal, the wonder, the warnings, the loss of paradise and the promise of return to paradise is what reaches people with these tales. Stripping them from the movie to match wits with half-wit weekend blockbusters like “Troy” and “Alexander” under the misleading banner of “historically accurate,” as if this is supposed to impart some sudden weight to an empty sequence of rehashed battles that still don’t come near “Braveheart” or “Excalibur,” makes for a very shallow, uninspiring product (and for those who think the fight on the ice is so original I suggest checking out “Alexander Nevsky”- a Stalin era propaganda film that figured out that tactic a while back).
So the battles are as fun as any other hack and slash war movie, there are some interesting moments between characters here and there- the interplay between Arthur and his Knights conflicted between duty, friendship and the desperate need to see their homelands again, the pre-siege face to face on the field between Arthur and the Saxon War Chief- a prickle of gooseflesh when Arthur as a child draws Excalibur from his father’s burial mound to try and save his mother from the marauding Woads- but that’s all it is- a few scattered moments that are pale echoes compared to just about every single moment of awe and heart that can be found in “Excalibur,” the seminal Arthurian film which flawlessly melds the fantastic with the realistic producing a glorious, heated epic that has yet to be touched by those that have followed in its cyclopean footsteps.
At the end of the film I looked over to my unofficial significant other to see if the film lived up to her high expectations as it pretty much had to my low ones. She was fast asleep. Bitch.In summation, I guess I’d have to say I like my Arthurian Legends with a little more magic, a little more splendor, and a lot more French Taunting.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=10197&reviewer=358
originally posted: 03/30/05 08:14:14