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King Arthur (2004)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/20/04 14:18:30

"The Once and Future Snooze."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Just as “Troy” tried to inject realism into “The Iliad” by removing all fantasy aspects of the story, now so does “King Arthur” to its source material. The film, written by David Franzoni and directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), bases itself not on the Arthur legend we’ve come to know, but on the popular speculation that yes, there really was an Arthur who lived not in medieval times, but in the Dark Ages, somewhere in the fifth century. And so the movie makes its best guess on how the real Arthur lived, what he did, and how many stunt sequences he performed.

It almost works, if not for a few minor problems. First, and most importantly, it’s kinda boring in too many spots. It rambles. Second, it tries to slip in references to the Arthurian legends, but when we spot them, we think, “boy, a little wizardry’d be cool right about now, break up this dullness, that’s for sure.” And third, Keira Knightley’s Guinevere character is a complete and utter mess.

So let’s focus on that last one, shall we? Arthur (Clive Owen, showing a surprising lack of screen presence) finds Guinevere locked away in a dungeon of sorts, her hand broken, herself so starved that she can barely walk. Yet within a day, she’s back on her feet, full of gusto and ready to fight! Wha?

It’s all part of a plan to make Guinevere a Warrior Princess, a reworking of the character that reeks of clueless studio involvement. I can see the executives now, chatting about how nobody likes a docile leading lady these days, how all women in the movies must kick a nicely sized portion of ass. And so for no logical reason, we get Guinevere as a highly skilled archer who’s ready to slap on some Braveheart body paint and lead her people into bloody battle. Again, wha?

The problem is that the movie makes no effort to explain this change in character. She just suddenly wakes up one morning as a tough gal, and it feels way too fake to ever click with the viewer. We’re not being told about a character. We’re being sold a new Hollywood cliché created by knee-jerk fear of being labeled chauvinist or something.

The movie leaves plenty more explanations in the dust as well. The plot follows Arthur and his men as they cross into Saxon territory to rescue an aristocrat family, after which they are hunted by the villainous Saxons, led by a Stellan Skarsgard, whose character’s name is Cerdic, but I only learned that from the credits. The movie is quite vague about the Saxons - they’re merely generic baddies created to chase the heroes and provide a decent showdown in an ending that sorta reminds me of the Alamo. These Saxons don’t really do much except fight the good guys a lot, leave, and fight some more, all without any character development, and it’s a generic-ness that gets old quickly. (For his part, Skarsgard makes a good brooding villain. Too bad he’s not given much else to do but talk gruffly.)

When we get to the final battle, it’s far too by-the-numbers. (Consider this a spoiler warning to those who think they wouldn’t be able to guess the predictable moments. You folks skip ahead on paragraph.) First wave of Disposable Bad Guys will be defeated. Second wave will fare slightly better, but not much. The third wave, which includes characters we have actually met, will break through and actually fight. Someone else will face the main bad guy in battle, and we know he will lose because only Arthur can be the guy who kills the main bad guy, right? Right. Oh, and for all this effort to make Guinevere a strong, independent warrior type, she still has to get her ass saved in the end. Lame.

The film does have some memorable moments. There’s a darn cool action sequence set atop a frozen lake, tension mounting with each crack of the ice. The knights of the round table, as much as they are, are likable characters, and even though Bors (Ray Winstone) is a lovable lug who’s way too formulated a role (a tough guy that loves kids!), it’s still an enjoyable role and an enjoyable performance. And the politicking behind Arthur’s actions - he’s trying to earn his freedom and return to Rome - is of some interest.

And yet the filmmakers never hold on to these sharper points. The movie slugs along at a gloomy pace, never pumping energy into the scenes that need it most. By the time we get to the final battle, the audience should be stoked for something great, not leaning back and thinking, yeah, sure, fine, whatever. “King Arthur” may be a more truthful retelling of the legend, but it’s certainly a lot less fun.

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