`King David': Old Testament story is edited for suspense, not insight

From the stiffness of the first few shots, I suspected ``King David'' was going to be a letdown. What clinched it was the Goliath scene. How can a filmmaker mess up a sure-fire episode like this? By twisting the Biblical account into a string of Hollywood clich'es, that's how. Instead of conferring with Saul and trying on armor, the movie version of David saunters up to Goliath on the spur of the moment, like a cowboy looking for a showdown. Since the script forgets to give him five smooth stones, he fumbles with his sling while the giant waves his sword overhead. The action is edited for suspense instead of insight, which is odd, since everyone knows how this story comes out. To top it off, Goliath -- with his bulky helmet and heavy breathing -- is a ringer for Darth Vader.

Other parts of the film are just as contrived, and most of it is painfully dull. Perhaps the director, Bruce Beresford, was overawed by his subject. Whatever the reason, he shows not a shred of the quiet sensitivity that marked his ``Tender Mercies'' recently. Where that film was poetic, ``King David'' is blunt and literal. It's the sort of movie that can't quote Nathan saying of David, ``He was . . . like the light of the sun,'' without cutting to a shot of the sun!

The performances are in the same league. There's plenty of posing and intoning, but hardly a speck of real acting. Characters mouth their lines according to simple rules -- loud means angry, soft means sad. Voices are pompous and expressions are fixed, except for an occasional bugging eye or knowing smile. The battle scenes would have been trite 30 years ago, and Richard Gere's victory dance into Jerusalem is embarrassing: a one-man bunny hop with choreography by Rumpelstiltskin.

There are two common ways of breathing life into a historical epic: with spectacle or emotion. While he wants ``King David'' to be spectacular, Beresford stifles it with endless shots of neatly arranged bodies and heavily made-up faces. He does earn a PG-13 rating with a nod toward ``the Cecil B. De Mille sin-and-scripture syndrome,'' as filmmaker Paul Schrader calls it.

As for emotion, it's the biggest failing of all. How disappointing to see such an ageless and sweeping story lavished across the screen for almost two hours without one single moment of real, unshackled feeling.

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