Every so often, Hollywood comes up with an idea that genuinely catches my attention. The exceptional concept behind 'King Arthur' did just that when it was originally revealed that the filmmakers intended to strip Arthur and his knights of their legendary status, and instead portray them with a consideration to historical accuracy. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the much-hyped end product didn't deliver on its unique promise. To be sure, 'King Arthur' as directed by Antoine Fuqua ('Training Day') is darker, grittier, and earthier than all of the other Arthur tales rolled into one. However, it never feels like anything more than a comicbook retelling of the legend with a nod to surface level history.
The story, of course, is a familiar one. As the Roman Empire expands, its army requires the skilled Sarmatian warriors of Britain to join their forces for a fifteen year tour of duty -- after their fiften years are up, each of these pseudo-slaves are allowed to return home to their families. The film opens as Arthur (Clive Owen) and his all-too-familiar knights of the round table begin their last mission to obtain freedom. However, a warrior princess named Guinevere (Keira Knightley), an old chieftain named Merlin (Stephen Dillane), and a savage warlord named Cedric (Stellan Skarsgard) severely complicate matters for the battle-worn warrior. With the assistance of his most trusted soldiers Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Bors (Ray Winstone), and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), Arthur must lead his small army of knights on a dangerous journey across the country to fulfill his final task.
Unfortunately, 'King Arthur' constantly delivers ideas that its scenes can't live up to. Its supposedly non-fictional world seems more exaggerated than the old stories it so proudly claims to discard. The included history lacks the research, depth, or texture that would make it more realistic. I'm baffled that the filmmakers chose talk up the history so much, and yet are unable to relate anything from the past other than a series of tired facts that they return to again and again. If only they'd taken away the gimmick and the forced Arthurian connections, I'd be left watching a decent fantasy film that didn't have such lofty shoes to fill.
As is, the movie is a mixed bag through and through. While the actors do the best they can with what they're given, Arthur is dry, Guinevere is laughably serious, Lancelot is lost in confusion, and the knights are unintelligent ruffians. A boring series of character beats highlighted by some over-the-top action, the film suffers from a serious lack of momentum and excitement. Clive Owen is the wrong choice for Arthur -- his reflective delivery doesn't suit a charismatic leader of this degree. Ioan Gruffudd has nothing to go on and his Lancelot feels empty and soulless. Keira Knightley works hard to be fierce, but comes up in a Xena-esque role that seemingly has nothing to do with the original Guinevere. The two bright spots in 'King Arthur' are Ray Winstone as Bors and Ray Stevenson Dagonet -- they seem to be the only ones having a good time in spite of Fuqua's insistence that each actor make their character more gritty and depressing than the next.
Perhaps most strangely, in what would appear to be a nod to "historical accuracy," the movie generally avoids mystical elements, but then it adds two as the final battle approaches. Most out of place is a magical arrow that vaults into the air and randomly lands in a tree, killing a traitor in hiding. Moments like these come out of nowhere and are completely divorced from the "realistic" and "historical" roots of the script.
On the bright side, there are some nice action shots, some impressive battle scenes (the film was produced by action guru Jerry Bruckheimer), and some visually stunning cinematography. In fact, mingled amidst all the mediocrity is a film that still has a lot of potential. It almost hits the mark on several occasions and really only falls flat because of the entirety of the production.
(Note that the "Director's Cut" presented on this disc might be more appropriately titled the "Unrated Edition," as there's nothing substantially different here aside from a few more minutes worth of blood and gore that would have earned the theatrically released PG-13 edition an R rating.)
Overall, 'King Arthur' isn't a terrible flick -- it's just a overly disappointing one. I would've enjoyed it a lot more if it hadn't been sold as a historical retelling of the Arthurian legends, but for those less concerned with such matters, this blood-fueled retooling of a classic legend may very well fit the bill.
Upon sitting down to watch this movie on Blu-ray, I was excited to see its picturesque visuals in high definition. The standard DVD edition was a mess of macroblocking and washed out colors that didn't do the theatrical print justice. Presented in 1080p with the AVC MPEG-4 codec, this Blu-ray edition of 'King Arthur' fixes the issues evident in the previous standard-def release, but adds a host of problems all its own.
Slight color banding appears in all the foggy scenes as well as on some of the performers faces' in fire lit shots (look at Dagonet's face as he turns away from his son when Arthur and his men make camp -- the colors just don't smoothly blend from one shade to the next and the effect is distracting). Shadow delineation, as well, leaves a lot to be desired and there are moments when there is literally no separation between certain dark elements, robbing the film of some depth despite its vibrant reds and greens (watch the first round table meeting where the actors' black hair is the same as the shadowy corners of the well-lit room).
Fine object detail is average -- while it's occasionally crisp, there are moments of unintentional softness. For a great example of this problem, watch as Cedric pillages a town after an approach by sea -- notice the lack of clarity on the tiny ships in the distance. This issue is peppered throughout the film, with background elements varying sharpness, sometimes from shot to shot within the same scene. Fine texture detail is also a mixed bag -- at times the small pieces of Arthur's chain mail are well rendered, but at other times, they give the picture screen door fits. Skintones are warm and natural, but the stubble and pores are sometimes more visible in long shots than they are in close-ups. The source doesn't have any noise, but there are a few print scratches that flicker across the picture from time to time. The contrast is generally above average -- although the snow scenes are too drenched in blue light to be as impressive as they could be otherwise. Finally, the grain is so heavy at times that it's more distinct than the other images on the screen, detracting from some of the gorgeous imagery in the film.
Despite all these failings, the transfer still boasts deep blacks, good color saturation, and fire effects that pop with bright oranges. Crimson cloaks, green fields, and cold moonlight are beautiful, and really stand out from the grime of the rest of the film. The high resolution also brings a welcome sharpness that was lost on the soft transfer on the DVD. The video bitrate bounced higher than usual and the film has a lot of space to move around in. The battle scenes are crisp and outdoor daylight shots are the best moments the film has to offer. Tiny flaming arrows, small bolts on armor, and intricate patterns on shields look nice.
All things considered (both good and bad), this transfer of 'King Arthur' ultimately adds up to an average video performance overall. It certainly has its moments, but there are just too many small problems compared to other similar high-def releases for it earn a hearty video recommendation.
This Blu-ray edition of 'King Arthur' comes with an excellent uncompressed PCM 5.1 track and a well balanced 640kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (in English, French, and Spanish). The uncompressed PCM track is a full, rich treat that has nice channel movement and accuracy -- booms resonate, dialogue is crisp, and clanging metal is spread across multiple speakers. The film's score is particuarly impressive, spreading its instrumentation throughout the soundscape and blending with pitches of the on-screen action. Trumpets blare with sword clangs, violins simmer with the crunch of grass, and the tympani pounds with the shield hits. Every small detail is present in the soundscape, and for my money this is the one aspect of the movie that comes close to holding true to its historical claims. Effects seem grounded, ambiance is spread across the soundfield, and even the tiniest crackles of flames are clear in the mix. Lastly, the dynamic range is wonderful and topped off an enjoyable audio package on this disc.
So why the less than perfect star rating? Technically, the audio certainly matches the filmmakers intentions, but what they intended tends to crowds the soundscape, often cluttering the mix. Army clashes are muddled by a choir of chaos that makes the progression of some fights difficult to follow. Large scenes push everything up a notch and the volume levels reveal the filmmakers as being more concerned with providing impact rather than a deep experience with good prioritization. An arrow strike is occasionally as loud a warrior's scream, a sword pulled from its hilt draws more attention than when it strikes another blade, and distant ocean waves are as prevalent as the army marching away from them. While this hardly destroys the overall sound quality, it does reduce the realism of the soundscape, again failing the film's advertised tone of authenticity.(Note that in an apparent error, scenes in the film that have non-English dialogue do not have on-screen translations (such as the moment Arthur spares a fallen soldier's life after the caravan attack). The translation only appears when the full subtitle track is on. Thanks to High-Def Digest forum member Maxx_75 for bringing this to our attention!)
The extras here have been ported from the standard-def DVD and look pretty bad in their native 480i resolution. Making matters worse, each of the supplements are quite thin.
The Director's Commentary with Antoine Fuqua is dry, boring, and goes silent far too often. He just doesn't appear to be comfortable in this format. Almost everything he offers is trite and repetitive, and it seems quite clear that he never researched the history of the period on his own. The only moments that help the track redeem itself are Fuqua's intriguing analyses of the actors in his film. His description of their personalities, behavior, and backgrounds perked up my attention every time.
The "Cast and Filmmaker Roundtable" (15 minutes) is similarly lacking in content, but at least when the actors and the director talk with each other, the supplement comes alive. Funny, engaging, and genuinely enjoying each other's company, Owen, Knightley, Gruffudd, and Fuqua are a joy to watch. A commentary track with these four would've been a lifesaver for the supplemental package.
A making-of featurette called "Blood on the Land: Forging King Arthur" is a seventeen minute bore that doesn't reveal any spark behind the scenes. It does seem to confirm that there was very little passion or personal investment in the film's creation, and that the personalities of the actors and the director were the only thing keeping folks happy behind the camera.
The "Alternate Ending" is the one extra that shouldn't be skipped. Instead of leaping off into a happy ending like the theatrical and director's cut of the film, the alternate ending is dark and depressing. It's a much better ending that matches the tone of the movie a hundred times better than the awkward test-audience-approved sap of the ending used in both official cuts.
Rounding out the features are a "Knight Vision Trivia Track" and a "Producer's Photo Gallery." While the photo gallery concentrates on shots of the extras from the film, it displays a real artistry and eye for composition that made this short feature worth a few minutes.
A showcase of missed opportunities, 'King Arthur' never lives up to the idea that generated its existence. Likewise, while fans will be overjoyed to see how much better the film looks on Blu-ray than it did on standard DVD, the high-def video transfer is still plagued with technical issues. The only thing saving this Blu-ray release from utter failure being its great uncompressed audio package. This one's definitely for fans only.