a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

King Arthur

I'll spare you the long (and fully resolved) story, but this was a review I accidentally wrote for the Weekly, hardly realizing that my brilliant colleague Sean Burns was already all over it. After deciding it might as well be read by someone, I've since padded it out a bit, because this is my site and my site knows no word count (that is, apart from the wish to not narcotically bore visitors to tears and anger with endless yammering). The grade for the following was a "C", by the by:

“When the legend becomes fact,” goes the oft-quoted line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.” Suffice to say, that’s not the most ethical advice, though Ford knew it, and there was a whole school of filmmakers - Robert Altman and Richard Lester among them - who built their careers out of defying it. In loose-necked films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Robin and Marian, legend is something to be knocked down: great deeds often stem from great accidents, the baddies are sometimes only slightly more evil than the heroes, and (especially in Lester) everyone’s a clutz, prone to slipping on surfaces and falling, in the msot photogenic way, on their asses.

All that said, what kind of beast is the supposedly realistic King Arthur? It’s surely not fact, given that the debate over who the painfully noble leader was based upon is forever under debate. But judging from the sheer ordinariness of its characters and the oodles of mud and muck on the screen, it’s hardly fanciful legend either. Instead, it plucks from random theories and hurls him into the real world, where Excalibur’s just a particularly well-crafted heirloom and Merlin’s simply some crazy dude living in a forest.

Alas, the makers of Arthur should have listened to Ford. (Or just abandoned it all together. Does no exec remember the box office returns on the similarly myth-debunking First Knight?) Striving to come up with its own legend to print, Gladiator scenarist David Franzoni craps out, devising the most tediously quotidian plot since The Phantom Menace explored the exciting ins-and-outs of interstellar trade embargoes.

Proving again that the bland movie star role is an ill-fitting one, Croupier rogue Clive Owen sleepily underplays Arthur, who when we catch up with him is in the service of the waning Roman Empire. While the English countryside is laid waste by the vicious Anglo-Saxons (led by a never more visibly hung-over Stellan Skarsgaard), Owen is enlisted to drag his band of knights - here, no more than a collection of interchangeable paunchy guys with instantly recognizable names - across the country, rescuing the wealthy from a certain lurid death.

But it’s not so much the instant forgettableness of the story that grates. While Troy was roundly chided for its lifeless historical pageantry, Arthur exponentially out-stiffs it. The director, Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, retains his position as the least irksome of Jerry Bruckheimer’s go-to lackeys. But while he appreciatively refrains from kowtowing to the macho subsection of the audience, he never fills the gaps either. There’s a genuine surreal tinge to seeing the oddball mix of Roman-Greco-meets-Englishness to the middle section, but this is still a film that all but kills its requisite comic relief (Ray Winstone, for some reason) in the second half and has Keira Knightley’s Guinevere distractingly re-imagined as the Dark Age’s equivalent of a kickass riot grrl, complete with dreamy tattoos and a penchant for rockin’ the bow.

As Arthur plods from one low-wattage squirmish to the next with nary a galvanizing character or incident in sight, it becomes quickly apparent that, take away the famous names, and you have generic historical junk, distinguishable only by high production value and the keen decision to set it in a rarely-presented era in England’s past. In other words, King Arthur is the boring-est non-stupid epic since The Alamo.


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