King Arthur [retro review]

“It will be good of you to mark my face, Saxon, for the next time you see it, it will be the last thing you see on this earth.”

The Scoop: 2004 R, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Clive Owen, Keira Knightley and Ioan Gruffudd.

Tagline: The untold true story that inspired the legend.

Summary Capsule: Um, tagline? I think you might be a bit off-base with that “true” bit, but still, this is an enrapturing retelling of the Arthurian legend set in Roman times. 

Justin’s Rating: We’re opera mad in Camelot, we sing from the diaphragm a lot!

Justin’s Review: For Christmas this past year, my mom thought it would be a swell idea to buy me a sword. I’m not sure exactly how she assumed I would react to opening up the box and drawing out a four foot blade sharp enough to shave with, but what she got was a mixture of confusion and horror. This is not just any sword, oh no, but a quite heavy pirate cutlass imitation. I knew it was a PIRATE cutlass, because the word on the blade informed me of that fact. “Mom,” I said in my most diplomatic voice. “Is it time to ship you off to the nut farm? Or did you want to give my wife an in-house weapon to threaten me with every time I mess up the kitchen?”

“You asked for it!” she replied indignantly, as the attendants wheeled her away on the straightjacket dolly. “You always put ‘medieval weapon’ on your Christmas list, so this year at the Renaissance Fair, we thought we‘d fulfill your wish!”

This is somewhat true; I always put “Medieval Weapon” on my Christmas list for about ten years now, but looking at that cutlass, a twinge of uncertainty ran through my mind. All I could think of is, there’s absolutely no way I’d ever want to get run through with a sword like this. My mind, being very considerate and protective of my fears, started working very hard to think of what that would feel like.

As I watched King Arthur (the director’s cut), which provides over 4038% of your daily intake of sword slicings, stabbings, run-throughs, slashings, beheadings, disembowelings, and pin pricks, I couldn’t vicariously enjoy the mayhem as much as usual because I kept thinking of my brand new sword and how much those poor people on screen must not like being punctured by such weapons.

As they inform you at the beginning of the film, supposedly the legend of King Arthur is based on an actual person back in the late Roman empire. This sort of bold-yet-vague statement is the sort of nonsense that unduly grants the movie historical truth in the minds of the viewers, even while there’s little if any proof that any of these people actually existed. Not to mention that if 5th century barbarians on the British Isles were using crossbows and trebuchets, I’ll douse my socks with ketchup and eat them right here and now (crossbows were introduced in the British Isles in 1066 AD and trebuchets in 850 AD). So it’s much better to just realize that this is a Hollywood “reimagining” of the Arthurian legend, and enjoy it as a straight-forward action flick.

At the onset of the film, Arthur and his few remaining “knights” are the remnants of foreign cavalry forced to serve the Roman Empire defend its northern border in Britain. There’s this pretty cool wall that separates the barbarians from the Romans, and that’s where Arthur lounges around a massive round table between action, playing poker to his heart’s content. As a large force of invading Saxons are storming down from the north, the declining Roman Empire decides to pull out of Britain completely, but orders Arthur and his lackeys on one final suicide mission to cross the wall, rescue a Roman family, and go ice skating.

I wasn’t exactly kidding about the ice skating; there’s a battle sequence where Arthur and seven followers stand on a frozen lake while a horde of Saxons attack. It’s quite, quite nifty, and that one battle alone is more than worth your while to see this. In fact, my toes curled in happy delight as I discovered that the director of this film actually made watchable battle scenes, something that’s long been passé in action movies lately. While there are lots of quick cuts, you can always tell what’s going on, and there’s none of that shaky-cam crap that directors think make battles look cooler and not nausea-inducing.

Even so, I waffled back and forth in my opinion of King Arthur. It’s not original to say the least — large swaths are blatantly lifted out of Braveheart and Gladiator— and the acting wavers between good and sub-par. You do like the knights and the rescued Guienevere (Keira Knightley), but they’re just not given enough material to work with and flesh out their characters. Pity; I liked the samurai knight and hoped he’d get some sort of explanation why there’s this ninja-fighting guy in Britain, but my heart was cruelly broken. O, woe is me!

The action is quite spiffy, when it comes, but the plot is simplistic and pompous. About thirty minutes into it, I figured out that they were going to pound the theme of FREEDOM into the ground, and so I made a game of counting how many times they said something to the effect of “people should be free”, “all people are born free”, “I want to fight for freedom”, “freedom makes me quivery in my nether parts”, and whatnot. I got up to around 26 or so.

What I can unequivocally praise is the stunning cinematography that goes on in King Arthur. It’s a gorgeous-looking film, full of great “feel” for the land of that time, and it’s all the better for the restraint of CGI that the director showed.

So in the end, it’s a veritable grab bag of sweet and sour elements, which own up to a mindless action romp that could’ve been much better, and could’ve taken a severe nose dive (particularly if Michael Bay, as rumored, would’ve directed it instead). All people need freedom, and all Mutants need to use the word “Woad” more often in their daily vocabulary.

Al’s Rating: Woads? Where we’re going we don’t need woads.

Al’s Review: Inspired by. Based on. Two essential phrases for any filmmaker. Need Mohandas Ghandi to throw down with some ignorant suckas in a barroom to spice up your biopic? Looking for a love interest to match your ruggedly good looking medieval freedom fighter? Well, there was that period that Ghandi was in England, and there’s no record saying he didn’t start throwing punches at the pub. And there is this one medieval princess who was around in the same century…of course she was actually eight or twelve at the time instead of the eighteen to twenty-five we’re looking for… but hey, just fudge it! If these are ideas that make you squirm with anticipation, then welcome to Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur.

Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthuris a the story of the stoic and bedraggled Clive Owen, who marches with his equally stoic and bedraggled troupe of knights across the English/Roman/Saxon/Woad countryside fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Fifteen years of war have slimmed their legendary ranks down to just seven men, only three of whom you’ll likely remember ten minutes after the movie’s over. There’s Arthur himself, the conflicted Roman general; Lancelot, doing his most nihilistic William Riker impression; and Bors, the savage, bloodthirsty warrior with a soft spot for his wife and kids. The platoon is rounded out by everyone’s favorite characters: Samurai Guy, Axe Guy, Honest Guy, and Bird Guy (who, come to think of it, is maybe the same guy as Samurai Guy). But so endearing a cast could not be complete without solid supporting characters, like Guenevere: Warrior Princess and Merlin, the witch doctor, seemingly versed in the art of the fortune cookie. And some Saxons with long beards. And some (naturally) corrupt priests.

There is lots of horseback riding and looking pensive, with occasional pauses to bicker and lecture about the meaning of free will. But as ludicrous as the dialogue is, it does move the story along sufficiently enough for us to become acquainted with the soothing yin of Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur, director Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua previously helmed the interminable Tears of the Sun and the truly excellent Training Day, and the influence of both films are felt here. Large lengths of time are devoted to bland, heavy dialogue set in the wilderness, but it is offset by some stunning scenery where you might otherwise expect none. If there is one area of Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur that cannot be criticized, it’s the photography, which, CGIed or not, is artful and impressive. Sadly, it’s done a disservice by, well, everything else.

For a film that I have unofficially attached the producer’s name to, Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur spends a surprising amount of screen time without a battle. When the levee finally does break, however, the testosterone surges until every last frame of celluloid is practically bursting with sweat, blood, and spittle. Each of the movie’s three major engagements begin with their own unique aura of cool, but then, as is Jerry Bruckheimer’s way, manage to extend themselves to nearly twice the length they ought to be. For example, the movie’s second act climax, a standoff on a frozen lake, is fittingly tense and filmed with a crispness that echoes the snow and ice and biting winds of the north. At it’s core, though, it’s really just ten minutes of people firing arrows back and forth. The film’s final conflict? Forty minutes! Forty minutes without a break. Over half and hour of hulking warriors with swords, axes, and miscellaneous cleaving instruments hewing a bloody perimeter through the oncoming army in a strident but crumbling last-ditch defense of their final stronghold. Okay, written down like that, it sounds pretty cool. But it’s important to realize that about twelve minutes into the fight that you’ll discover that you’ve seen every parry, block and thrust the actors can muster, and your bloodlust was sated about twelve Saxons ago.

I’ve wondered, throughout the course of this review, whether I’m the right person to be making judgements on this film. I have a long-standing love affair with Arthurian legend. My middle school years were spent watching Excalibur and a King Arthur cartoon show on Saturday mornings. High school study hall was passed with The Once and Future King and The Mists of Avalon. My senior project in college was spent adapting Le Morte D’Arthur into a mob movie (don’t ask, it was terrible). So when I look at Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur, I feel that beyond the cheesy dialogue and protracted battle scenes, there’s a heart to the story that is simply missing. In my eyes, the knights of the round table have always epitomized dedication, honor, cameradery, and all the best the human spirit has to offer, which is why Lancelot’s betrayal (conspicuously absent here) is so heartbreaking. I was certainly open to the idea of reimagining King Arthur, and I had no expectations of anachronistic chivalry, jousting tournaments, or strange women lying in ponds distributing swords. In this film, however, where those keystones of Arthurian legend have been excised in an attempt to create something more edgy and, I suppose, relatable, they have instead made a fatal mistake of removing so much that they’ve castrated the story’s soul.

Is someone who holds the crux of Arthur in such high esteem the right person to review a movie that purposely eschews it entirely? Perhaps not. Despite my chiding, Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur is not an bad film for what it is — the acting is competent, the plot is par for an action movie these days, and Keira Knightley is pretty to look at. But I wonder then: why King Arthur? Who are they pleasing if they are intent on alienating fans of the story? For whom would they create such an off the wall, uneven, cliff notes version of events? Who were they seeking to satisfy by substituting love, loyalty, and betrayal with large flaming explosions? I ask, but I suppose I already know the answer. His name is in the title of the movie.

Kaleb’s Rating: The shocking Smurf footage Hanna-Barbera doesn’t want you to see!

Kaleb’s Review: I’m not sure what it was that kept me from seeing this one back when it first came out, but I have a theory. I think I read somewhere that the videogame adaptation sucked, and I somehow took this as being exceptional i.e. not something that is true of all movie-to-game adapations. This resulted in a weird, inapplicable backlash that made me assume the movie was also crap, and that my time and money would be better spent on other movies in the Beardy Battlefield genre, such as Kingdom of Heaven. Which I also have still not seen.

Look, I’m a movie geek who doesn’t actually watch that many movies, okay? It’s kind of my gimmick.

Anyway, thanks to one of my coworkers bringing in a pile of DVDs to share — whereupon my manager snagged all the good ones — I was able to experience this film free of charge, which just happens to be a perfect fit for my socioeconomic stratum. Having viewed it the requisite twice, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised. The movie is solidly not crap, and there are some really memorable performances.

Clive Owen turns in the dreamiest Arthur ever, creating a character who is virtuous and sincere, and, atypically for that type of character, only slightly bland.

Keira Knightley retains her title of Hottest Skinny Boy, and rather impressively manages to come off as more than just Elizabeth Swann painted blue. I don’t know if she hoarsed up her voice a bit or what, but whatever she did, it worked. And the way she cackles freakily during the final battle creates one of those situations where I’m not sure whether it’s okay for something to be a turn-on.

Perhaps the biggest prop in my prop closet goes to Swedey McNordic, whose real name has a lot of “A’s” and umlauts. As someone who has a deep and abiding interest in voice acting — to the maximum extent that someone can have an interest in something without getting off their duff and actually pursuing it — I think I kind of want to be this guy. Granted, it’s exactly the same voice he would later apply to Bootstrap Bill, but it’s just so cool. And I think it works a lot better here.

And finally, rounding out the accolade-getters is Ray Winstone, whose portrayal of Bors — the nigh-unkillable lunk that every team needs — marks the reprisal of… wait… hold on…

Okay, I was going to be all smart-assed and say “marks the reprisal of the same character he played in Saving Private Ryan.” Problem: Ray Winstone wasn’t in Saving Private Ryan; I’m thinking of Tom Sizemore.

So anyway, rounding out the accolade-getters is Ray Winstone, whose portrayal of Bors — the nigh-unkillable lunk that every team needs — marks the reprisal of the character Tom Sizemore played in Saving Private Ryan. And also Blackhawk Down.

And now for the not-so-goodness:

Every knight save for Arthur and possibly Lancelot — but arguably both of them as well — falls into one of two categories: One-note Trope, or Largely Undefined.

Galahad and Gawain both occupy the latter category, and the viewer never really gets to learn what makes them tick, or at least which Final Fantasy Tactics job they occupy. Galahad at first appears to be the dedicated archer, based on the fact that he uses a bow and comes off as kind of dainty, and Gawain seems to carry some sort of disdain for swords1, which is strangely cool of him. Beyond that, couldn’t tell ya much.

Bors, as previously mentioned, is the noisy brute. His pal Dagonet is the strong, silent guy who befriends a child and thereby lights up road flares specifically calibrated to the Grim Reaper’s visual spectrum. And Tristan? Tristan is Too Cool to Livetm.

My other, larger complaint pile heaps itself entirely upon the character of Lancelot, or, as I like to call him, Lord Emo of Sulksbury.

You remember how earlier I implied that Arthur and Lancelot might also be one-dimensional poopstains to some degree? Well, as it turns out, they are the Earnest Believer and Mocking Atheist, respectively. They come in an action figure 2-pack.

Taken at face value, you’d think they’d both get annoying, but Arthur at least has some other stuff to fall back on. Whereas Lancelot’s entire schedule, outside of saying some variation of “blah blah blah your God in sarcastitalics yackety shmackety” seems to consist chiefly of dragging a loaded diaper around, and trying to decide whether to sneer or pout.

I mean, granted, neither he nor any of the others are in the most pleasant of circumstances, but he could at least take a lesson from Bors: get hammered and copulate excessively with a hot redhead. Granted, this is perhaps not the healthiest or most responsible outlet, but at least it’s something.

In the end, King Arthur racks up more cheers than jeers. Definitely worth a rent, even more definitely worth a free borrow, and I may even add it to my permanent collection someday.

1. I only say this because he is never once seen using one. On special occasions he uses a spear or bow, but most often wields an axe and club.

John Woo, Medieval Edition

John Woo, Medieval Edition

Intermission:

  • The thunder shots during the Excalibur sequence closely resemble the animation from Bruckheimer’s production logo.
  • Guinevere’s headdress at the end of the movie is held in place by modern bobby pins.
  • Michael Bay was originally set to direct, but left project due to budget concerns. Bay had developed the project for over 5 years.
  • Although the weather seems very cold and dreary, the movie was shot during a near record high temperatures in Ireland.

Groovy Dialogue:

Lancelot: You look frightened. There’s a large number of lonely men out there.
Guinevere: Don’t worry, I won’t let them rape you.

Cerdic: You come to beg a truce, you should be on your knees.
Arthur: I came to see your face so that I alone may find you on the battlefield. And it will be good of you to mark my face, Saxon, for the next time you see it, it will be the last thing you see on this earth.

Galahad: I don’t like him – the Roman. If he’s here to dispatch us, then why doesn’t he just give us our papers?
Gawain: Is this your happy face? Galahad, do you still not know the Romans? They can’t scratch their asses without holding a ceremony.

Lancelot: I don’t like anything that puts a man on his knees.
Arthur: No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?

Guinevere: They tortured me… with machines.

Bors: Have you been fighting?
Gilly: Yes.
Bors: You been winning?
Gilly: Yes.
Bors: That’s my boy.

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8 Comments

  1. The samurai brings to mind something from the Ninja Burger game. One of the possible delivery missions is to Camelot. Among the things you need to do to complete it is to make a Ninja Lore check to deliver a burger and fries in thirty minutes or less to a fictional location. The mission failure results state that you were seen and now all the Kiong Arthur stories have ninjas in them, causing all other players to gain Honor points.

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