By now you've heard about the concept of "A Knight's Tale" and had the time to become justifiably dubious. A 14th Century jousting adventure set to the tune of guitar rock stadium anthems? How could that possibly be anything short of laughable?
The answer is -- well, I don't know exactly. But when, five minutes into the movie, a crowd of peasants at a jousting tournament starts stomping feet in time and bellowing "We will/We will/Rock You!" (and soon thereafter do "the wave"), I defy you not to grin an aw-what-the-heck grin and go along for the ride.
The story itself isn't much more than a dressed-up, time-warped sports underdog yarn, in which the lowborn hero ("The Patriot's" jaunty Heath Ledger) poses as a knight (only those of noble birth are allowed to compete) and becomes the toast of the jousting world. But in the hands of writer-director Brian Helgeland (who helmed "Payback" and co-wrote "L.A. Confidential"), the movie's cliché-spawn chassis is merely a jumping-off point for a jocular, undeflatable, high energy theme-park ride of action, wisecracks and romance.
William Thatcher (Ledger) begins the film as squire to an aging knight who drops dead just before a jousting match in the movie's opening scene. Realizing he and his fellow servants (sidekicks Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk) will go hungry without money from what would have (hopefully) been their liege's win, William dons his master's armor against his compatriots' protests and enters the competition -- with the visor on his helmet down to hide his face.
With luck at his back, William is victorious and he sees an opportunity both to pursue his impossible dreams of becoming a knight and to keep himself and his companions on the gravy train. He spends a month training himself hard in secret, then concocts a fictitious persona (not unlike a pro wrestler) of noble lineage and enters the European jousting circuit.
There is, of course, an arch rival black knight (played by the deliciously pernicious Rufus Sewell) and a beautiful blue-blooded girl (newcomer Shannyn Sossamon, an Angelina Jolie look-alike) who immediately takes a shine to William's rebellious, nothing-to-lose ways in the arena.
She's the movie's weakest link, not because Sossamon is a bad actress (she's a wonderfully wicked flirt), but because her character isn't terribly well established and she's the most jarringly modern sight in this ancient tale. She dresses like an MTV video vixen at the Renaissance Faire and she's preposterously sassy and independent for a 14th Century lass. Where's her father while she's flitting about to jousting tournaments and playing come-hither head games with mysterious knights?
But while "A Knight's Tale" never earns a carte blanche suspension disbelief waiver, that doesn't stop it from being totally entertaining in spite of its frequent "yeah, right!" moments.
For one thing, the jousting face-offs kick butt. Helgeland applies action movie sensibilities and meticulously well-planned photography to capture every ounce of the incredible impact that happens when a lance crashes into the armor of a knight on a galloping horse. These are clearly not effects shots. You'll be wincing and cheering right along with the on-screen crowd.
The movie is also brimming with wit, much of it from one of William's capricious co-conspirators -- a cocky, flippant, down-on-his-luck Geoffrey Chaucer. Played with masterfully measured raillery by Paul Bettany ("The Land Girls"), the pre-"Canterbury Tales" poet is a blustery, sardonic cross between a boxing announcer and a carnival barker. If you're not a teenage girl busy swooning over hunk-in-waiting Heath Ledger, Bettany steals the movie.
Ledger is, however, perfectly cast. He's clearly a modern hero, but he doesn't look out of place like Sossamon does. He's got 200-watt charm and enough testosterone to make William's arrogant pride smell like courage. And he smooths over some of the movie's rough spots, like a lover's quarrel that comes out of nowhere just so his noble maiden doesn't seem too easy.
But the picture's modest brilliance lies in Helgeland's ability to mix oil and water into such a satisfying cinematic concoction. The fact that songs like War's "Low Rider," Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" and Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town" play perfectly into the context of this movie that takes place in a 700-year-old world of honorable knights, noblemen, and damsels (albeit very liberated and self-sufficient damsels) is a minor miracle. I mean, remember "Ladyhawke," that silly Matthew Broderick medieval fantasy with the laughably inappropriate and oh-so-'80s synthesizer soundtrack?
Helgeland avoids similar pitfalls by using songs with a proven track record for rocking the house. But how he employs them with a wink is what makes them work. The most ingenious use of the uncharacteristic soundtrack is a scene in which a highly formalized period dance (touching palms, turning circles, bowing) evolves so smoothly into a boogie-down number set to David Bowie's "Golden Years" that you're a good 30 seconds into the more modern music before you realize what's happened. Like the "We Will Rock You" moment, it's a scene that just makes you smile appreciatively with how strangely appropriate it seems.
Now, the same kind of story in a modern setting probably wouldn't even be worth seeing. The girl, the rival, the against-all-odds plot (not to mention the plausibility-pushing finale) -- it's been done to death. But the boyishly absurd fun Helgeland has with his hard-rockin' 14th Century setting is seriously contagious. It doesn't change the fact that the girl looks totally out of place. It doesn't change the fact that the film has a shelf life of maybe 10 years before it will seem so laughably dated people seeing it for the first time might wonder how it ever got released.
But if you can't have fun at "A Knight's Tale," you are unquestionably a fuddy-duddy.
Run time: 132 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th May 2001
Box Office USA: $55.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $117.5M
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures Corporation
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 58%
Fresh: 85 Rotten: 61
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Heath Ledger as Sir William Thatcher / Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland, Rufus Sewell as Count Adhemar of Anjou, Shannyn Sossamon as Lady Jocelyn, Paul Bettany as Geoffrey Chaucer, Laura Fraser as Kate, Mark Addy as Roland, Alan Tudyk as Wat, James Purefoy as Edward, the Black Prince of Wales/Sir Thomas Colville, Bérénice Bejo as Christiana
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