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Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2001

We shall, we shall rock thou

A Knight's Tale

Rating: * * * Director: Brian Helgeland Running time: 132 minutes Language: English Now showing

Silly, stupid Hollywood movies are a dime a dozen, but every now and then you get one that's so stupendously ill-conceived it moves from the mere bad into the hilariously over-the-top. Such is "A Knight's Tale," which pairs up medieval jousting with classic rock; this combo seems to have been natural enough to the filmmakers (hey, some people eat mayonnaise pizza, too), but the rest of us will be rolling in the aisles, wondering "What were they thinking?"

Heath Ledger in "A Knight's Tale"

Picture this: 14th-century France, a wooden arena filled with crusty, stinking peasants doing The Wave to the locker-room rhythm of Queen's "We Will Rock You," as jousting knights crash into each other at full tilt. Heavy metal meets heavy metal.

Having committed themselves to this risibly awkward bit of high-concept, the filmmakers have no choice but to see how low they can go. Having a young squire on horseback train to the sound of War's "Low Rider" is getting there, but the film really embraces absurdity when a banquet full of lords and ladies engaged in graceful cart-dancing suddenly go MTV and start shimmying and -- yes! -- getting down to David Bowie's "Golden Years."

Dare I say more? Should I mention that one of the film's central characters is Geoffrey Chaucer -- yes, that Chaucer -- a gambling, drunken lad who introduces his liege at the tournament with the overblown style of a pro-wrestling MC ("The dee-fen-duh of Italian virginity, the Harasser of La Rasa, the one and own-lee Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein!")? Or that an aspiring young armorer "brands" her metalwork with the Nike swirl?

Inserting rampant modernisms and pop-cultural references into a Middle Ages comedy has been done before, and as someone who actually had to sit through all of Mel Brooks' "Men in Tights," I could only squirm in my seat as "A Knight's Tale" plummeted toward that same cul-de-sac, my mind screaming, "Don't go there!" But while Brooks' shtick was just plain lame, "A Knight's Tale" is so lame it works -- almost. Quaffing a few goblets of ale at ye olde tavern beforehand would be a wise move indeed.

Certainly, you won't need to be sober to keep up to speed with the plot. When his sire suddenly expires mid-tournament, squire William (Heath Ledger) dons the knight's armor and surreptitiously competes in the joust. Since he's not of noble birth, the deception is a dangerous one, but William is prepared to take the risk to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a knight (cue sappy flashback). His fellow squires Wat (Alan Tudyk) and Roland (Mark Addy) go along to profit from the cash prizes they stand to earn.

This being a Hollywood movie, William wins every joust he enters, so the film struggles to create some challenges without ever actually having him lose. Throw in a love interest, the noble-born Jocelyn (Shanynn Sossamon), who first tells William that if he loves her, he'll lose the tournament, only to change her mind the next day, and an evil adversary, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), who resorts to dirty tricks.

This is almost enough to keep the repetitive nature of the jousts interesting (their high-impact excitement lasts about as long as a sumo bout), but, truly, it just wouldn't be the same without being scored to AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long."

Heath Ledger ("The Patriot") does the job as the Hollywood Ozzie in King Arthur's court, managing to make a 14th-century peasant seem just like a 21st-century surfer, while Shanynn Sossamon is appropriately babelicious in diaphanous black satin, trying valiantly to, like, put some feeling into lines such as "I wish to hear poetry, Ulrich." It's Addy and Tudyk who get all the intentional laugh-lines. Going by the rule book of Hollywood cliches, you know Tudyk's the hot-tempered one because he has red hair and Addy's the jovial one because he's chubby. It's that kind of film.

Certainly the strangest thing about this flick is the man at the helm, Brian Helgeland, who took home an Oscar in '97 for his accomplished camerawork on "L.A. Confidential." If this one was just a work for hire, a paycheck B-movie, it wouldn't be so embarrassing, but "A Knight's Tale" seems to be Helgeland's dream project -- he wrote the script and produced it as well. Two decades in The Biz and an Oscar . . . all to make the film that I'm sure he dreamed up when he was 14 and heavily into Dungeons & Dragons and Heavy Metal mags. Like William's dad tells him (in one of the film's more "pensive" moments): "If he believes enough, a man can do anything." Too true.

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