What's the real deal with Arthur and Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin, Galahad, Gawain, and the lads? Why did the Saxons exhibit such terrible table manners? King Arthur is being advertised as the one to watch for the definitive answers, the true story behind the legend of the Knights of the Round Table after we've seen all the pretty lies in Camelot and Excalibur. One myth buster: Merlin, apparently, wasn't a magician, just a crazy-eyed former enemy who joined forces with Arthur and his band of unmerry Sarmatian men.
Look, I don't know, maybe this new take directed by ''Training Day'' coach Antoine Fuqua, from a script by ''Gladiator'' scribe David Franzoni, with an American/British/Danish/Swedish/German cast assembled for efficient international distribution, really gives us the goods: The historical Arthur (Clive Owen) was a dour hunk, half Roman and half Briton, with all the heroic ambivalence of Maximus and twice the weight of Russell Crowe's colosseum wear on his shoulders. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Arthur's sulky best friend and an ace fighter, was possessed of the handsome brunet tousle of an Israeli paratrooper but little of the chutzpah. Guinevere (Keira Knightley) wasn't just Hepburn to Arthur's Tracy, but also the most singularly and creatively underdressed maiden to wield a bow and arrow. Maybe there really was a Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård), commander of the Saxon hordes, proven to be a grunting, murderous yeti with a rabid son (Til Schweiger) as his second-in-command.
Maybe. What's surer is that, as directed by Fuqua and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer with all the joyless, synthetic commitment to big-budget showbiz bang for which his shingle is famed, this middling ''King Arthur'' doesn't waste time developing character -- or coherence -- when a big, joyless, synthetic battle will do. (There are requisite bloodfests at the film's beginning, middle, and end, in keeping with Hollywood tastes for the architecture of the obvious.) And in keeping with the prevailing, imitative post–''Lord of the Rings'' taste in scenic design, those battles are swaddled in mist, snow, fog, dark, and mud.
And ice, don't forget ice, not all of it the kind that heavy-footed armies can slip on. The movie's romantic hook, between set-piece fights with outcomes as guaranteed as the afterlife for the early Christian faithful, is Arthur's bond with Guinevere, proud pagan beauty from the exotic tribe known as Woads (and watta Woad!). Arthur is a devout man, but he's also disgusted by the corruption he sees coming out of Rome. And somehow, the combination of disenchantment and Clive Owen's default projection of Paxil-resistant melancholy has turned the future king into one cold fish. Not that the actor is chilly, mind you -- Owen is, even in dirt and chain mail, a thinking person's heartthrob, and millions of throbbing thinking persons wait, despite discouragement, for the day he might assume the less metallic mantle of James Bond. But this Arthur exhibits signs of fervor nearly indistinguishable from those of frostbite. Knightley's Guinevere tries womanfully, with various flashes of eye and tosses of coif, to arouse her rescuer. And certainly this willowy young actress advances her sylph-of-the-moment winning streak following her feisty-maiden charms in Bruckheimer's ''Pirates of the Caribbean.'' Alas, this Hamlet of an Arthur will not be moved; by contrast, Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn was a party animal.
As it turns out, the lustiest, roaringest, most sociable mate among Arthur's band of seven samurai -- er, fellow knights -- is a bawdy skinhead proud of the flock of bastard kids who call him Dad. ''Sexy Beast'''s Ray Winstone plays the faithful, bellowing knight Bors with such football-lout moxie that he makes Gruffudd's petulant Lancelot seem a curly-woolen wet blanket by comparison. Gorgeous by no means, and sometimes jolly incomprehensible, his Bors is at least nuttily alive in a production that's determinedly subdued.
Speaking of ice, ''King Arthur'''s best battle takes place on a sheet of it, a frozen-over expanse on which the good guys outwit, outplay, and outlast the bad guys through a combination of teamwork and physics. The editing isn't particularly elegant and Hans Zimmer's accompanying wall of soundtrack is even less so. But for a moment, the heroes and villains of ''King Arthur'' lose their bearings. And in a movie like this one, a little madness is its own Holy Grail.