Pirates of the Caribbean producer Jerry Bruckheimer dips his toe into Oscar-friendly epic filmmaking with the Braveheart-esque King Arthur. For all it does wrong, King Arthur intrigues with some strong acting, zesty dialogue, and the ol' war-film machismo placed in the novel context of 5th Century A.D. Britain.
Here, a half-Roman, half-British Arthur (a.k.a. Lucius Artorius Castus) is still leader of "the Knights of the Round Table," Samartians defeated by Rome and incorporated as the empire's fighting elite. Styled by director Antoine Fuqua as 5th Century Navy Seals, Arthur's tough-guy crew have served fifteen years away from home and hearth. As the empire dissipates, the men joyously anticipate their promised freedom, but—after rescuing Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti) from outlaw countryside-defending Woads—the thanks they get is a final commando mission, to rescue a Roman nobleman and his family from the brutally encroaching Saxons.
The biggest problem with King Arthur, scripted by David Franzoni (Gladiator), is its inability to fully commit to its historical take on Arthurian legend. As it is, spotty history liberates the filmmakers—the time period is nearly prehistoric—but Franzoni and Fuqua make their Arthur a Dark Ages superhero while failing to convincingly reconcile his outsized sense of justice and responsibility to his circumstances. Arthur's cynical men quite reasonably assert that the suicide mission isn't their fight, but they follow born-leader Arthur anyway, because the faith-based, Pelagius-loving, free-will-touting Arthur can't stand to leave any lambs to any slaughter.
Clive Owen authoritatively plays the half-Roman Arthur as a true believer in an idealistic Rome which, we're constantly reminded, doesn't exist. When Arthur finally gets the hint, the disillusioned warrior quickly sides with his one-time enemies, the Woads (the influence of the preternaturally beautiful Guinevere, played by Keira Knightley, doesn't hurt). The conversion of Arthur and his six knights nakedly resembles Akira Kurosawa's action-movie blueprint The Seven Samurai, which, Franzoni knows, ain't broke. Stephen Dillane of The Hours plays Merlin, mysterious leader of the Woads; unfortunately, the too-mysterious character utterly fails to register.
Like all Jerry Bruckheimer movies, King Arthur suffers from "the Bruck touch": scenes bathed in unnatural light (preferably blue), liberal use of slo-mo, and the thunderously awful musical grandiosity of Hans Zimmer, which squeezes the life out of the picture by doing the thinking and feeling for us (is it too late to rescind this man's Oscar?). Bruck coats Fuqua's grit with gloss. Still, perhaps only Bruckheimer would, in deference to Fuqua's desire to only sparingly use CGI, spend the money to build a 950-metre-long recreation of Hadrian's Wall in County Kildare.
So why see King Arthur? Spectacle is a good reason, including Hadrian's Wall and the ultimate Battle at Badon Hill, pitting the knights and Woads against the far vaster Saxon hordes (an earlier confrontation on a sheet of ice is also diverting). We've seen this sort of thing before, but the ball-busting between the men (exemplified by Ioan Gruffudd's fiery, focused Lancelot and Ray Winstone's bluff Bors) is finely tuned, and the great Stellan Skarsgård's cold-blooded pragmatism as Saxon commander Cerdic is magnetic and funny (meeting Arthur, he deadpans, "Finally. A man worth killing"). Knightley makes Guinevere shrewd and gamely does stunts, but her petite glam, exacerbated by sexed-up battle gear, proves laughable (in her best moment, Knightley gives Lancelot as good as she gets, promising she won't let the Saxons rape him).
A simple parable about the complexity of leadership, King Arthur stumbles whenever it tries to evoke the romanticism of the medieval legend but almost succeeds in transporting us to the distant warrior nobility in which it so staunchly believes.