MADE WITH a generous heaping of "Lord of the Rings"-style derring-do and a pinch of "Braveheart"-esque Celtic lore (yet, surprisingly, with nary a whiff of "Camelot," "The Sword in the Stone" and their breastplate-clanging ilk), "King Arthur's" refreshingly revisionist take on the Arthurian legends makes almost palatable its bombast and reliance on formula. Once the sound of thundering hooves and New Age Celtic keening by Moya Brennan faded from my ringing ears, I was left more satisfied than not with this exercise in historical speculation, courtesy of director Antoine "Training Day" Fuqua and producer Jerry "Pirates of the Caribbean" Bruckheimer. It is, as you might expect from that pair, epic. Considering its worn-out cinematic precedents, it is also epically fresh.
Of course, to anyone who has sat through any portion of the recent "LOTR" cycle, much of "King Arthur" -- set in 5th-century Britain -- will feel familiar. As the members of "King Arthur's" outnumbered, Roman-led contingent of foreign conscripts do battle against, and sometimes with, a confusing swirl of barbaric Saxons, tattooed Picts and imperial Romans, you'll be forgiven if you hear echoes of Tolkien's multinational (not to mention multi-species) clash of elves, dwarves, humans, Orcs and Ents. The correspondence between films is far from exact -- the Pictish seer-warrior Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is a far cry from the wizard Gandalf, for instance -- but "King Arthur's" good-vs.-evil saga about a band of underdogs overcoming incredible odds is clearly indebted to the structure and themes of Peter Jackson's film trilogy.
Of course, much of "King Arthur," written by David "Gladiator" Franzoni, is based on the archaeological and written record, while I've been told that "LOTR" was largely made up. No matter.
You will be pleased to note that Franzoni retains from the Arthurian tales that most of us grew up with . . . a round table. Otherwise, almost everything else here is new. Lucius Artorius Castus, for instance, aka Arthur (Clive Owen, showing more animation than he has in a long while), is the half-Roman, half-British commander of a cavalry unit of Sarmatian knights drafted from Eastern Europe by the Romans. Nearing the end of their 15-year-long tours of duty guarding a remote outpost along Hadrian's Wall, the 73-mile-long barricade built in the 2nd century to separate Roman-controlled Britain from Northern invaders like the Saxons, Arthur's crew consists of Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Bors (Ray Winstone) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson). When they're not drinking and carousing with women, much of their time is spent fending off attacks from the Picts north of the wall, derisively called "Woads" by Arthur and his men because of their habit of decorating their skin with blue dye from the woad plant. (Time to bone up on that graduate-level seminar you took on ancient culture, because much of this info comes rushing past with the speed of a flaming arrow.)
The Saxons, meanwhile, led by the very scary-looking father-and-son team of Cerdic and Cynric (Stellan Skarsgard and Til Schweiger), have been lately making inroads from Northern Germany into Britain, and now are threatening the son of a prominent Roman family cut off deep in Woad country far north of the wall. From the Roman Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti) comes one last mission for Arthur's men: Rescue the boy (Lorenzo De Angelis) and his family, and only then can the knights collect their walking papers and go home.
Have I mentioned that our seven heroes are outnumbered by, oh, about a thousand to one?
Hey, no biggie. Using brawn, brains and a strategic alliance with the guerrilla-war-expert Picts, negotiated by Merlin's babelicious daughter Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who hates the Saxons as much as Arthur, the knights handily defeat all comers. Well, not quite handily. Some press photos have already given away the fact that someone working for the cause of truth, justice and the Arthurian way gets killed. Just don't expect me to be the one to tell who.
Is "King Arthur" a tall tale? Heck, yes, as tall as they come. But it should get bonus points in anyone's book for a couple of things. First, it doesn't dumb down too terribly a terribly complicated period in history. Second, there is no Holy Grail motivating Arthur's men, just a very human homesickness. What's more, Arthur himself is shown to be a Pelagian, a once-discredited early Christian sect that believed in free will over divine grace.
In other words, by going back to its origins and dusting itself off, the King Arthur story has proved itself to have a very contemporary resonance.
KING ARTHUR (PG-13, 130 minutes) -- Contains intense but generally gore-free battle scenes, some bawdy talk and sensuality. In English and a bit of Pictish with subtitles. Area theaters.