The expository text at the beginning of King Arthur implies that it's based in part on "recently discovered archeological evidence." That's just hot air, but it sets the parameters for an Arthurian adventure free of sorcery and removed from myth, one in which Arthur and his knights are merely men, more concerned with getting home safely than performing chivalrous deeds or recovering Holy Grails. The idea is intriguing, but by the end of the film, it seems about as involving as a film in which Santa Claus braves elements of the North Pole with a bunch of shorter-than-average men.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Antoine Fuqua, and screenwriter David Franzoni clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how to pull it off. Their Britain is a grim, gritty place where cultural and historical movements meet and clash. Clive Owen's Arthur is a Roman commander on the northern frontier of a crumbling empire. Eager to return home, he fends off the occasional advances of angry Picts (or, as the film would have it, "Woads") led by a shaman/warlord named Merlin (Stephen Dillane). Also eager to get out of Britain are Arthur's men, mostly conscripted Sarmatian pagans whose ranks include soldiers with names like Lancelot, Galahad, and Tristan. Of course, power abhors a vacuum, and as the homesick swordsmen plan their retreat, Saxon hordes led by Stellan Skarsgård begin making their move.
King Arthur ultimately gels into a kind of origin story for modern Britain, but it's a Britain that has a lot in common with an idealized America. While Skarsgård barks to his Saxons about racial purity, and the Romans have no trouble enslaving the native Britons, Owen speechifies about equality and freedom. (One scene even finds him flying into a rage upon discovering a prison-abuse scandal; too bad he's not eligible to run for president.)
King Arthur is conceptually compelling, but the interest ends there, in part because the humans get squeezed to the margins in favor of pseudo-history and clashing battleaxes. A commanding actor in other films, Owen seems lost in a field of extras and interchangeable supporting players. His romance with Keira Knightley's Guinevere (an ace archer, as luck would have it) seems to have been included just because it wouldn't be an Arthur story without it. Apart from more neatly trimmed facial hair, nothing sets Ioan Gruffudd's Lancelot apart from the other knights of the Round Table. Only Ray Winstone's vulgarian Bors and Skarsgård's hulking conqueror make much of an impression, mostly because they break the otherwise unrelentingly grave mood.
A transplant from the music-video world, Fuqua proved himself an adept director with Training Day, but he's been in yeoman mode ever since. A sequence in which Owen leads some refugees away from the Saxon incursion echoes the plot of Fuqua's already-forgotten 2003 movie Tears Of The Sun, and it doesn't work any better this time around. Even the PG-13 action scenes stink of competence, and the whole film is overcast, as though Fuqua wanted the notion of "the Dark Ages" to become an aesthetic choice. That decision sadly fits with the rest of the lamentably literal-minded picture.