Yes, it's a nifty idea to take the legend and base it on something allegedly more historical, but director and crew have come up with something that makes one yearn for the magic in those old tales. The wizard Merlin is reduced to some cranky, forlorn rebel leader scampering around in the woods; the Knights of the Round Table are a bunch of indistinguishable actors who are either too whiny or too boorish to give a damn about; and Guinevere--though played by the super-hot Keira Knightley--is directed with a somber, uninspiring tone.
The story starts in 452 AD, when some young boys are being taken by the Roman Empire to serve as soldiers for 15 years. Cut to the future, in which a British outpost under Roman rule is headed by Arthur (Clive Owen) or "Artorious," a Roman eager to return to his country and help spread Christianity. When a sleazy bishop shows up and demands that Arthur and his knights perform one last mission before getting their freedom, they sign on to protect an important young Roman man and his family from the dreaded Saxons.
The Saxons are apparently a band of grungy rock stars, including Stellan Skarsgard as oddly aloof leader Cedric, who looks like Gregg Allman and talks like Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. It's hard to believe that this band of Saxons could conquer so much behind a leader so horribly bored and laid back. The only thing Cedric seems capable of leading is a humongous group nap. He's also a terrible strategist, allowing his thousands of soldiers to get tricked and tricked again in various battles with the knights. The funniest of these is when the Saxons wind up falling through broken ice on a frozen lake, a scene marred by terrible production value. It looks like a bunch of actors clutching fake foam ice chunks in somebody's swimming pool.
The love affair between Arthur and Guinevere is reduced to a sensitive moment in which Arthur pushes her dislocated fingers back into place, and the one, obligatory sex scene. They get married in the end, a wedding as unceremonious and tired as the film that precedes it.
Owen, star of Croupier and rumored James Bond contender, simply doesn't have the makings of a charismatic action hero. Arthur's heroism and determination come off as something more akin to general annoyance. Owen seems uncomfortable in the role, and uncommitted, his work contributing to the malaise rather than rising above it.
While there's certainly something behind the argument that England can be damp, dark and dingy, looking at a soggy countryside at its worst for two hours can be hard on the eyes. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, whose washed-out approach worked beautifully for Black Hawk Down, winds up robbing the English countryside of all its majesty. Surely the place can be more visually appealing in between rainstorms. It's not 100 percent dreary.
The battle scenes, of which there are a few, are both implausible and hard to follow. That Arthur and his small band of indistinguishable knights can overtake the entire Saxon army is quite the leap of believability. Lots of quick cuts and low lighting result in much of the action being lost.
Making King Arthur your average Joe soldier is like making King Kong an organ grinder's monkey. For a far more magical treatment of the legend, rent Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and trade the yawns for laughter. To put it simply, yet quite harshly, King Arthur is Satanically boring stuff.