Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Film Review: King Arthur

Ah am not a smart man, Jenny. But I know what luv is.

NOTE: The following is a reprint of my original review in a newspaper that shall remain anonymous in a city that shall remain anonymous in the Central Valley of California.

They say chivalry is dead. According to the movie "King Arthur," it never existed in the first place.

...Along with basic hygiene, all standards of uniform, tactics and discipline in the Roman army, and any redeeming qualities whatsoever in the early Roman church.

Instead, the film takes a dynamite premise -- that Arthur was a real leader who fought the unwashed hordes of Saxon invaders to stave off the Dark Ages for a few more years of light in Britain after the Roman Legions left -- and then misses everything about that premise which should have made for a killer movie.

Arthur's "knights" here are only slightly less unwashed than the bottom-feeder Saxons they fight and only slightly more sympathetic. You know the names - Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad - but don't bother telling which is which. Beyond assigning them distinctive weapons and costumes ala the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the film sure doesn't.

The story follows the "one last job before retirement" action film formula, tracking Roman commander Arthur and his six remaining knights on a final mission to rescue an isolated family from the inbound Saxons.

Good stuff so far. Only, our heroes don't give a rip. They've got better things to do, like sitting around swilling cheap wine, scratching themselves and arguing over the dubious paternity of their kids. Only the prospect of getting out of the army are enough to sober them up for the road.

Which all sounds amusing, but it's a serious problem too. It's hard to root for "heroes" who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a fight on behalf of defenseless people.

Arthur himself is a good enough soul, full of Christian piety and lofty notions of freedom and the nobility of Rome.

But where such ideals could have been the stuff of inspiring drama -- stalwart men fighting for things larger then themselves, things about to be swept away by murderous barbarian hordes -- Arthur turns out to be the lunk-head dupe his scurvy pals have labeled him all along. (So much for that "High King" image.)

The film in fact repeatedly bashes the Roman Church, laying the guilt for Rome’s pre-Reformation excesses at its feet several centuries before they occurred, even throwing in a few macabre trumped-up charges for good measure.

But at least Arthur and his men can still put on a good show on the battlefield. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is the king of action, and director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "Tears of the Sun," "The Replacement Killers") knows how to deliver a brilliantly bloody sequence or two. If only the script gave us more than a sequence or two.

There's a rule for action movies requiring a fight sequence at least every 10 minutes. "King Arthur" delivers maybe three good ones -- strung together by scene after talky scene of Arthur's men trying to prove to Arthur what a dupe he is.

But a King Arthur who can stay in the saddle during a fight is hardly worth a movie anyway. Make "Conan the Barbarian 7" if you want, but save the Man himself for something more significant than a better-than-average action flick.

And now for the hate mail portion of my review.

"King Arthur" also caves to the feminist requirement wherein any woman in an action film must be as tough as the men. This time we're invited to snicker our way through the notion of fair Guinevere (the sexy and waifish Keira Knightley, no less) as a vaguely-ninja Celtic warrior princess.

Come on...

There's a reason women don't play for the NFL. There's a reason even the freakishly buff Williams sisters don't face Roger Federer across the net at Wimbledon. There's a reason for the WNBA. ...Actually there's no reason at all for the WNBA, but you get the point.

If women can't face men with a tennis racquet, how long is Keira Knightley really going to last against a 300-pound Saxon swinging a five-foot piece of iron?

And don't write me about "Queen Boudicca." Sure there were Celtic women fighters, but history says they were toothless hags whose primary tactic was leaping on a man to claw his eyes out while her male counterpart attacked with a real weapon.

Besides, Boudicca lost to Rome, and better for Britain that she did.

One last beef.

In making Rome the bad guy, the filmmakers seem to forget the "Dark Ages" happened in the first place because the light of culture, technology and genuine faith -- Rome -- fell, or at least left Europe for more-defendable Constantinople, where it thrived for another thousand years.

The earliest evidence for a historic Arthur comes from the writings of a 9th century monk. There he's revered as a war leader and defender of this abandoned outpost of failing Christendom in 12 battles -- a mighty dux bellorum flying his standard of Light against a rising tide of Darkness.

Wow. Sounds like a movie in there somewhere, doesn't it?

(Note: for an honest and meaty take on the Roman roots of Arthur, try novelist Jack Whyte's "Camulod Chronicles" series.)

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