Oh, those Romans. Back in the fifth century, they were determined to rule the world, which of course included all of Britain. And as this vivid and imaginative telling of the Arthurian legend begins, young Lancelot is seen being taken from his Italian family in order to serve as a knight in the army that's heading off to Britain.
The term of duty is 15 years, and 15 years later, the man in charge, Arthur, and his comrades are ready to go home. But first comes a battle - the first of many, it turns out -- involving a small band of arrow-wielding people who paint themselves blue.
"Why did Merlin send you?" demands Arthur (Clive Owen), although there's no Merlin to be seen. That line of dialogue is the first hint that this is not going to be the same old story of King Arthur. It really is a whole new take on the story.
All this takes place in the first 10 minutes of the film, which is in turn followed by another quick sequence of backstory: Bishop Germanius has news for Arthur that he doesn't want to hear. (If this was a contemporary film, he would be the police captain telling the cop who was about to retire that there's just one more tough job to do.) Arthur and his knights are to ride up to northern England -- where the brutal Saxons run wild -- and rescue the pope's favorite godchild and his family. Only then will Arthur and his men be given their freedom.
The resulting plot resembles a sort of medieval Saving Private Ryan, in which a military mission is ordered, against all odds.
Early on, it's obvious that Clive Owen is going to rule this film just with his strong screen presence. His Arthur is formidable, whether angrily yelling at a supposed superior or quietly praying alone. Yet these are no slouches surrounding him. The faces of Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), and Galahad (Hugh Dancy) are all familiar, though not well known, but their performances fit perfectly within this period piece. Then there's the case of the big lusty lug Bors (Ray Winstone, who was so great in Sexy Beast), who is a scene-stealer due both to his size and his delivery of funny lines. Seems that he has so many children, he hasn't named them but numbered them.
But there aren't a lot of light moments in King Arthur. It is, after all, a story of war, of what war is about, and of the mostly thoughtless, selfish and power-hungry reasons for it. The Romans fight for pope and country. The Saxons, led by the long-haired, weary, gruffly whispering Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) are presented as brutal animals, almost Klingon-like, fighting simply because they love to fight and kill. The Woads (those blueish people) are more noble: They fight for the love of their land. They're led by the mysterious Merlin (Stephane Dillane) who is certainly not any kind of magician here. And one of their own, the beautiful Guinevere (Keira Knightley), proves to be quite able on the battlefield -- in fact, one of the fiercest fighters around.
Oh, there's some business with her putting the moves on Arthur but also having eyes for Lancelot (who doesn't mind the attention). But this is more a movie about big battles, fiery arrows and armor-piercing crossbows. There's an impressively staged fight on a frozen -- but cracking - lake. There's another, vicious fight near the end, jam-packed with fast-paced editing and extreme close-ups, brilliantly accompanied by Hans Zimmer's moving but not overwrought score. The film concludes in a sobering manner, with villains vanquished and some heroes lost. But writer David Franzoni (Gladiator) and director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) manage to cap it off with a strangely upbeat ending that nicely marries myth with legend. It offers a new beginning to an old story.