KING ARTHUR (PG-13) This new take on the life of the legendary King Arthur is far removed from the mystic, romanticized fantasy of the famous tale. Rather, the film tells a version of the fable with only slight references to a round table and a sword in the stone. A story of liberation and bloody sacrifice, it is a well-executed portrait of how Arthur (Clive Owen) and his entourage may have defeated the Saxons through a series of gruesome battles. Other characters of Arthurian legend appear throughout the movie, though not quite in a traditional sense. Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is not a magician but a warlord, and the contention between Arthur and a pretentious Sir Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) for the affection of Lady Guinevere (Keira Knightley) is only a vague sidetrack. Nonetheless, the luster of this legend is magnified on the big screen and packed with action and valor. 1/2
MAN ON FIRE (R) John Creasy (Denzel Washington) doesn't say much about himself but you've seen enough movies to recognize a burned-out drunk seeking redemption when you see one. He's hired as bodyguard for Dakota Fanning in Mexico City, who rehumanizes him before she's kidnapped, and he sets out for revenge. Brian Helgeland's screenplay leaves serious questions if you think about it but director Tony Scott ensures you won't, keeping the film well paced and visually exciting with some amazing montages. You can't expect a movie to entertain and make sense in 2004.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (R) Although the villains here aren't necessarily the ones you'll expect, Jonathan Demme's remake offers a near-perfect transposition of the original film's Cold War paranoia to the contemporary paranoia of the Age of Terror. An extremely effective Denzel Washington takes on the Frank Sinatra role as a nightmare-ridden soldier who starts to doubt reality as he comes to smell conspiracy all around him, beginning with a vice-presidential candidate who may not be at all what he seems. Most of the political satire of John Frankenheimer's original film has been axed in favor of a creepy and steadily gripping atmosphere, but the film works fine that way. This new Manchurian Candidate is faithful to the spirit of the original while presenting itself as nothing less than a horror movie of the scariest sort — a political horror story. The ending is a bit disappointing and there are some unfortunate oversimplifications and clumsy exposition along the way, but the film is, for the most part, a grand entertainment. Also stars Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. Opens July 30 at local theaters.