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MOVIE REVIEW

But is it Art?

A rousing big-screen battle fest, 'King Arthur' gets a lot right -- just not the legend it's based on

There's no Holy Grail, no Morgan le Fay, no Bedevere. Merlin is now the guerrilla leader of Britain's savage hordes, who are painted blue and called the Woads. Forget about the Lady of the Lake -- Arthur pulled Excalibur from his father's burial mound. Oh, and this just in: The Knights of the Round Table actually came from the Ukraine.

At least there is a Round Table -- it looks like something you'd find at a corporate retreat -- and an Arthur (Clive Owen) who lords over it with noble, mopey brow. In most other respects,

"King Arthur" departs so radically from what most of us accept as the basics (i.e., what we've gleaned from Sir Thomas Malory, T. H. White, Walt Disney, and Monty Python) that the movie qualifies as a whole new myth. The opening titles do posit some bunk about "recently discovered archeological evidence," which is the first time I've heard that rationalization used to explain the existence of Keira Knightley. "King Arthur," in other words, does to this legend what "Troy" did to Homer, with one important difference: It's a better movie. At least, it's a solid, somber, rousing piece of studio zirconium: cobbled together from "Gladiator," "Braveheart," "Lord of the Rings," "The Magnificent Seven," and five tons of Hollywood hooey.

It's certainly a Jerry Bruckheimer production -- the dialogue clanks with the italicized simplicity of a comic book, and Ray Winstone's high-fiving Sir Bors is a play for the locker-room ya-

hoos in the back row (if this were "Top Gun," he'd be Goose). But "Arthur" is also an Antoine Fuqua movie, and I'm a little startled to report that Fuqua ("Training Day") has directed the hell out of some of it. The back story -- and here lovers of the classic Arthurian mythos will want to hold their sides or noses -- is that such knights as ladykiller Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd, of TV's "Horatio Hornblower"), stalwart Galahad (Hugh Dancy), hulking Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), and hawk-loving Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen) were conscripted in their teens by the Roman Empire from the conquered lands of Sarmatia, near the Black Sea. They've been posted to the scrubby little island of Britain, where their commander is the Roman-British half-breed Artorius, a.k.a. Arthur, who has imbibed dangerous ideas about equality and freedom during his visits to the home office in Italy.

When the film proper starts, those ideals have been pushed aside in the interests of imperial greed; Arthur is fighting to protect a realm that no longer exists. The Romans are pulling out of England, leaving on one side Merlin's Woads, who come off as a mob of English soccer fans with a smidgen more body paint, and on the other an army of Saxons invading from the north -- Orcs by any other name and led by Cerdic, a husk-voiced warrior king of unsurpassed eeevil. I think Stellan Skarsgard, normally a civilized actor, took the role just so he could put on a Viking fright wig and whisper lines like "Burn every village . . . kill everybody."

The script, by David Franzoni ("Gladiator"), is full of such Classics Illustrated howlers, and Fuqua barely keeps a handle on the film's tone. When the knights arrive at a castle in the north, you may find yourself expecting John Cleese to stick his head above the battlements and start taunting the silly English kaniggets. Instead, Arthur finds the imprisoned Guinevere (Knightley).

By this point, we're 50 minutes into the movie and itching to see the warrior babe who's all over the posters. It turns out she has followed Arthur's career for years, which would qualify her as a stalker if not for the useful crossbow skills. (She also sports battle tattoos that would gain her immediate employment in any mall in America.)

With Knightley's appearance, "King Arthur" gets the lift it's been waiting for, a pop agility to offset the creaky doom and boom of the approaching Saxon war drums. Forget about any chivalric romance, though -- Guinevere seems more interested in becoming Friends With Benefits.

The last half of the film gallops downhill to an epic climactic battle, with Arthur forging an alliance between his knights and the Woads to claim the mantle of king of Britain and stand tall against the Saxons. By this point, history has been hogtied and left in the trunk of Jerry Bruckheimer's Porsche, but Fuqua delivers the summer-movie goods, so it's possible you'll forgive him until you're at least halfway home.

Already there's been a remarkable action set-piece on a frozen river, with 500 Saxons inching across the cracking ice toward a handful of knights (add the Battle of Thermopylae and Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" to the beef stew of this film's influences). The final donnybrook is a long and brilliantly edited chunk of movie mayhem that beats anything in "Troy" and, for my money, most of the smackdowns in "The Lord of the Rings." What does any of this have to do with King Arthur? If you have to ask that, you're in the wrong multiplex.

Those last scenes are so well turned, in fact, that you may briefly forget a war movie is the last thing we need just now. I know, I know, it's silly to play geopolitical metaphor with a hunk of summer headcheese, but tell that to Bruckheimer and company, who happily position Arthur as an early adopter of all-American democratic values. He is us, they're saying. Funny, the last time I looked at the headlines, we were playing the Romans.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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