[box cover]

King Arthur: Director's Cut

This is better. The problem is, "Better than what?" The theatrical version of Jerry Bruckheimer's King Arthur (2004) was a muddled and misconceived revisionist retelling of the Arthurian legend that left audiences baffled at its very reason for being. Stripping the lore of its mystical elements and placing it in the dingy confines of the Dark Ages circa Sixth Century may have seemed like a novel way of getting at the oft-told tale, but it also stripped the story of is most saleable elements, stranding the film somewhere between recent B.C. sword-and-sandals epics like Gladiator and oft-promised but never filmed Crusade-era drumbeaters (though that chapter in history will soon be exploited, too, with Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven). Espousing themes of freedom and faith, and shot on location in the dreary British Isles, the theatrical cut was tonally indistinguishable from Mel Gibson's Braveheart, but it lacked that film's searing emotionality, which helped it become a word-of-mouth smash. Instead, King Arthur was built and sold as a frontloaded Summer Blockbuster and died an ignoble death on the July battlefield, poorly reviewed and trampled underfoot by Spider-Man 2 and I, Robot. So, what a surprise, then, that what was incomprehensible on the big screen has somehow transmogrified into a nearly watchable, if completely generic, entry in the… what to call it? The tar-and-trebuchet genre? With the backstory of how the Knights of the Round Table came into Arthur's service now clarified, and the characterizations of the knights deepened beyond their choice of weaponry, Antoine Fuqua's "Director's Cut" now acquires a reasonable bit of forward momentum as it plows through a number of trite plot devices en route to a big, bloody (and historically documented) third act throwdown at Badon Hill.

*          *          *

A performer of brooding intensity, Clive Owen is still solid casting as the Roman Arthur (aka Artorius Castus), only now, away from the disorienting bombast of the big screen, one may better appreciate the nuances he brings to his conflicted cavalry commander. His charges are of Sarmatian lineage, the rugged spawn of defeated warriors who impressed the Romans with their skill and valor in battle. After years of tireless service to the Roman army, and following a particularly grueling battle with the primitive Woads, these knights are at last to be granted their freedom. But this promise is broken when the conniving Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti) orders them once more into harm's way on a veritable suicide mission to rescue one of the Pope's favorite nephews from an approaching division of ruthless Saxons led by the disheveled and perpetually sleepy Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård). Enraged by this betrayal, the knights nevertheless obey this command out of loyalty to Arthur, who has won such fierce fidelity by selflessly fighting alongside his men with little regard to his own mortality. Upon retrieving their objective, Arthur and the knights unexpectedly acquire a captured Woad beauty, the beautiful and bow-proficient Guinevere (Keira Knightley), at which point the race is on to return safely from Saxon country in order to claim their freedom. More pronounced in this longer, unrated (more gore!) version of the film is an unmistakable criticism of current American foreign policy, with the collapsing Roman Empire being fought on all fronts by formerly conquered foes who want to establish their own culture and worship their own gods. The extent to which this element was excised by Bruckheimer isn't entirely clear, but the deeply felt (if clumsily handled) metaphor gives the film a purpose that it otherwise lacked in its disastrous theatrical incarnation. That said, the picture is still an absolute mess of inept battlefield geography and lousy CGI further hampered by the absence of a central villain. (Once the knights reject the freedom offered by the Romans, their ultimate sacrifice in battle against the savage Saxons feels tragically pointless. Basically, it's a hazily-stated reiteration of Black Hawk Down's "it's about the man next to you" ethic.) But there's something to be said for Fuqua's ability to find the interesting failure in what was once the worst Jerry Bruckheimer production since Kangaroo Jack. Not a lot, but hey — progress is progress. Buena Vista presents King Arthur: Director's Cut in a superb anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with outstanding, THX-certified Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a dull (i.e. un-gossipy) feature-length commentary from Fuqua, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a cast-and-filmmakers "Roundtable" discussion, the darker alternate ending, a "Knight Vision" trivia track, a demo for the Xbox game, a photo gallery, and previews for other BVHE titles. Keep-case with paperboard slipcase.
—Clarence Beaks



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