The film's retelling moves the story to the fifth century A.D., when a weakening Roman Empire was losing its grip on its remote British outposts. Arthur (Clive Owen from "Gosford Park") is the Roman-raised commander of a company of battle-hardened Sarmatian knights stationed at the frontier between Roman-occupied England and a savage north populated by "Braveheart"-esque painted Woads. When an army of ruthless Saxons invades, only the reluctant leader Arthur has a hope of uniting the warring peoples of Britain in a desperate defensive stand.
The names of the knights Arthur diplomatically seats around a round table are familiar and, yes, he does carry a sword called Excalibur, but otherwise the film's story bears little resemblance to the traditional myths. Guinevere ("Pirates of the Caribbean's" Keira Knightley) is recast as a scrappy Woad warrior, and the doomed romance between her and Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd from TV's "Horatio Hornblower" movies) is reduced to Lance leeringly checking out the future Mrs. Arthur at a couple of points.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of rebuilding the Arthurian legends from the ground up, director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") and company simply haven't come up with a new story as powerful as the timeless one they've jettisoned. The fresh historical setup is intriguing early on and a pivotal battle on a cracking frozen river generates some memorable suspense, but the film loses most of its momentum in its emotionally flat second half. Appealing actors are mostly wasted on underwritten parts, with Gruffudd's Lancelot heading the list of those crying out for more to do. If such stuff does indeed represent the true historical origins of the Arthurian myths, it's no wonder storytellers have tended to stretch things ever since. Starring Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Stellan Skarsgard, Stephen Dillane, Ray Winstone, Hugh Dancy and Til Schweiger. Directed Antoine Fuqua. Written by David Franzoni. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. A Buena Vista release. Action/Drama. Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality and some language. Running time: 125 min