Initially I was quite disappointed when I found out that Clive Owen was not going to be the next James Bond. After dark, brooding performances in the movies like Croupier and I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, as well as a powerful turn in the relationship drama Closer, I was looking forward to his take on the tuxedo-clad super-spy. When I saw Children of Men, I actually realised that perhaps we were better off without Owen tied up to a role that could see him typecast for life. His hero in that movie was refreshingly original (he never once picked up a gun) and, at the same time, perfect for Owen to embody. Despite my being a fan, it is clear that every star makes bad choices, and not every role is suited to them. King Arthur, in my opinion, is a prime example.
Rewriting the history of King Arthur as we knew him, now we have moved a thousand years earlier than the 15th Century Camelot tales, and we are in the Dark Ages. The Romans have control over a large portion of the known world, including the lower half of England (below Hadrian's Wall), where they enforce their rule using Sarmatian mercanaries, who serve the Empire as Knights. The numbers of this elite group have dwindled over the years, with only about eight members left now, all led by their commander - Arturious. In battle, they are a force to be reckoned with. Outnumbered, they are never overwhelmed, a crack unit trained in all manners of combat - close-range, long-distance archery, broad sword, samurai, short-sword - who support and protect one another above everything else. On the eve of being given their papers for safe passage to become celebrated heroes back in Rome, and as Rome prepares to remove its military presence from Britain, Arthur and his Knights are ordered to perform one last task. A veritable suicide mission, they are to cross the Wall into dangerous territory where the mysterious Wode tribe rules, and rescue an important Roman family trapped there, all the while with the huge invading Saxon army tearing across the land, killing everyone they encounter, and hot on their heels.
It's not hard to see where the Director Antoine Fuqua got his ideas from with respect to this movie. Anybody familiar with his enjoyable military action-adventure, starring Bruce Willis, will be able to see the similarities instantly. Firstly, the story is almost identical - an elite unit, fresh from their last successful mission, are dispatched to rescue a small group of people who are trapped in enemy territory, as an overwhelming opposing Army approaches. The 'twists' are the same as well - the way in which the rescue becomes more about the fate of a nation than the protection of a small group of people, and the whole suicide-stand that it basically boils down to. Even some of the military tactics seem the same, as well as the depiction of the team: a commander, a sniper (although at some point they all become great with longbows), a couple of close-combat specialists, a scout (complete with pet Bird of Prey) and even a demolitions expert ('take out that wall!').
You may ask: What is there to complain about? King Arthur joins the S.A.S., where's the problem? Well, firstly, King Arthur - at least for me - was much more about the myth than about 'history as reinvented by historians who have finally pieced together the truth.' Arthur was about pulling swords out of rocks, mysterious ladies who live in lakes, and a dark magician named Merlin. It was probably best brought to life on celluloid in the cult classic Excalibur. This misty, bloody, incestuous, magical epic still stands as the definitive cinematic interpretation of the myth (leagues above the Hollywood vehicle First Knight, starring Richard Gere and Sean Connery). Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur is a reworking of this classic tale, without any of the magic, or the passion or the mystery. Even the epic battles seem limited in scale and not really in line with what we have come to associate with the myth. The second, possibly even bigger, problem is the choice of lead. Clive Owen may be able to do dark and brooding with his eyes shut, but bringing that to Arthur was one of the single most stupid propositions that I have ever heard of. It ranks up there with casting Sean Bean as the Rutget Hauer character in the recent Hitcher remake or Keanu Reeves as the hero in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Owen's plays Arthur like that wooden idiot Hayden Christensen played Anakin Skywalker, and it just doesn't work. Don't get me wrong - Clive Owen is a class actor - he just can't pull off a decent Arthur. Here he broods, and shouts, and broods and barks, and when he's supposed to be rallying his troups, you're sitting there wondering why Ray Winstone doesn't take charge.
Talking of Ray 'The Departed' Winstone, one of the more positive aspects of the movie is the supporting cast. Arthur's Knights are brought to life by Winstone's thuggish twin-dagger fighter, who has a ridiculous number of children, Casino Royale's Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the samurai-scout with the Bird of Prey, Fantastic Four's Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot, who seems to want to sleep with everybody else's wife (including Arthur's romantic interest, Guinevere) and Hugh Dancy's permanently anxious Gallahad. Then there's Guinevere herself, who is less princess and more warrior-woman here, brought to life by Keira 'Domino' Knightley, whose biggest problem is her ridiculously proper accent, totally at odds with the character she played. Where did she get her elocution lessons from, living out there in the forest? Also, the opposing Saxons are led by a gruff Stellan Skarsgard, who does well at bringing some resonance and integrity to the part. Merlin no longer has any magic, although he does have a lot of blue body paint, and the less said about him the better.
On the plus side, fans of Tears of the Sun will enjoy a reworking of that movie within a period setting, with swords swapped for guns. King Arthur also aims to satisfy those who want more of a visceral, guerrilla-warfare-styled action-adventure, with lots of battles, little character and an easy-to-follow plot. Unfortunately, between Owen's lacklustre lead and the cliché-ridden story and script, this new, more 'realistic' portrayal of the legend of King Arthur makes you cry out for more of the myth. Vaguely enjoyable even with its overlong duration (and this longer Director's Cut is more bloody, but does not make it a particularly better movie), King Arthur is the kind of thing you need to watch with your brain off, and try not to think about too much. Forgettable popcorn fun.
Our Review Ethos