King Arthur review by Mike Long

I think that we'd all agree that Hollywood gets pretty stagnant at times and it feels as if non one in the film industry has any new ideas or wants to attack any old conventions. Thus, we should applaud any filmmaker who appears to be willing to take a chance. The 2004 film King Arthur delivers a new take on the ancient myth of the British king and presents a story which will challenge the pre-conceived notions of the audience. This is a good thing, right? So then why does this movie feel so stale?

According to a title card at the outset of King Arthur, some historians believe that the renowned "King Arthur" legends are actually based on a group of warriors from the Dark Ages, around the 5th Century A.D. According to this tale, the Roman empire had conquered much of the known world at this time. The Romans invaded an area known as Sarmatia, and took the Sarmatian cavalry into the Roman military. The Sarmatians were known to be great warriors. The Romans would take the sons from Sarmatian families and train them to be soldiers. These young men would be committed to 15 years of service to the Romans. At the end of that time, they would gain their freedom.

The film tells the story of a group of Sarmatian knights, who are led by a Roman soldier named Artorius Castor, also known as Arthur (Clive Owen). Arthur's troops consist of Lancelot (Ioan Gruffud), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone), and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson). As the story opens, Arthur and his knights have been fighting battles in Britain for nearly 15 years. After a fight against the Woads (a group of insurgents in Britain), they return to a Roman outpost, anxious to gain their freedom. However, an official from Rome informs the men that they have one last mission. The Saxons are invading Britain from the north and a prestigious Roman family is trapped in the wake of the invading army, which is led by the evil Cedric (Stellan Skarsgard). Angry at this new, Arthur and his men begrudgingly set out on this mission. Little do they know that they are in for the fight of their lives.

As noted above, I have to admit that tackling this alternative view of the "Arthurian" legend is a great idea for a movie. Based on the little that I'd heard about the film during its disappointing theatrical run (The $90 million film only grossed $51 million), I expected the characters in the film to much more barbaric. As it stands, Arthur and his men are somewhat civilized, but they live in a highly uncivilized time. Guinevere (played by Keira Knightley) does appear in the film, but she is a scrappy peasant girl and isn't the least big glamorous. Merlin (played by Stephen Dillane) is here as well, but he's the leader of the Woads and has no mystical powers whatsoever. The round table does make an appearance in the movie, but there is no Camelot. King Arthur is simply the tale of a group of warriors who are fighting for a cause and for themselves.

So, the idea taking a familiar story and stripping off the veneer is an original one. However, in robbing the story of the familiar legend, the creators of King Arthur have delivered a movie that doesn't feel original at all. As a matter of fact, King Arthur reminded me of a somewhat more simplistic version of Braveheart (And that's not just because of the Woad warriors who are painted blue.) Apparently, screenwriter David Franzoni felt that the introduction of a new mythology was enough to carry the film, so he didn't bother to provide it with a compelling story, plot twists, or intriguing characters. The film's story is quite straight-forward from beginning to end and we know every step of the way what's going to happen. (SPOILER WARNING: When Lancelot described the type of funeral that he'd like to have, I knew that he wasn't going to survive the film. When will writers learn? END SPOILER WARNING) Aside from Arthur, the knights are virtually indistinguishable. The film tries to give them identifying traits, such as their personal weapon or fighting style, or the fact that Bors has a family or that Tristan takes an orphan under his wing, but in the end, these characters are simply cardboard cutouts who are being sent into battle. Director Antoine Fuqua (Who made a stink in the press upon the film's release over the PG-13 cut that he had to deliver) gives the film a great look and stages some impressive battle scenes, but the film has no heart. The actors appear to be trying and Clive Owen and Ioan Gruffud are likable in their roles, but they have little more to do than ride horses and swing swords. It's great that producer Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to do something a little different with King Arthur, but it's too bad that the results were some homogenous.

King Arthur invades DVD courtesy of Touchstone Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate releases -- the PG-13 rated theatrical cut and the Director's Cut, which runs some 13 minutes longer. For the purposes of this review, only the Director's Cut DVD was screened. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The picture looks great, as the image is very sharp and clear. The image shows no grain and is free from defects from the source material. Although Fuqua has used a somewhat muted tone in the film, the colors look good, most notably the lust green landscapes. There are some haloes from edge-enhancement present on the image, but artifacting is kept to a minimum. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which delivers excellent sound. The dialogue is always clear and audible, and the music and sound effects sound fine. The battle sequences are filled with loads of surround sound action and bone-crushing subwoofer effects.

The King Arthur DVD contains several extras. Director Antoine Fuqua provides an interesting, if somewhat dour audio commentary. He speaks at length about the film's production, the locations, and the actors. But, his gravelly voice, speaking style, and somewhat "down" tone make the commentary difficult to listen to for long stretches at a time. "Blood on the Land: Forging King Arthur" is an 18-minute "making of" featurette which contains many comments from Fuqua, writer Franzoni, and Bruckheimer, as well as members of the cast. The segment looks at the origins of the story, the locations, the fight training, the costuming, the visual effects and the score. "Cast & Filmmaker Roundtable" (16 minutes) is an interesting discussion with Bruckheimer, Fuqua, Franzoni, Owen, Gruffud, Knightley, and Dancy where they speak (somewhat) openly and frankly about the making of the film. Although I didn't particularly care for King Arthur, I found this discussion to be quite interesting and I'd like to see more of this kind of thing on DVDs. There is an "Alternate Ending", with optional commentary by Fuqua, which is more like an extended ending. The film can be viewed with "Knight Vision", which is a "Pop-Up Video"-like trivia feature. The extras are rounded out by the "Producer's Photo Gallery".

5 out of 10 Jackasses

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