A Knight's Tale (2001)Rated PG-13 for action violence, some nudity and brief sex-related dialogue.
Starring Heath Ledger, Rufus Sewell, Mark Addy, Laura Fraser, Paul Bettany.
Photo ©Columbia Tristar. All rights reserved.
Why Let the Fun Fizzle Out?
It actually started off pretty well. I like it when a movie says, "Let's get something straight here, right off the bat." In this case, A Knight's Tale happily proclaimed that it was going to ignore anachronisms. Even better, it was going to exploit them as atmosphere. In this case, the main anachronisms featured were the portrayal of jousting as a sporting event comparable to today's hockey games and wrestling matches, complete with food vendors and the audience doing the wave; and the usage of pre-dominantly '70's rock music as background. Right away we knew this wasn't going to be serious; heck, if we bought into it, it might even be a lot of fun, with some jousting matches to cheer for and some modern-day sensibilities set in a time period, i.e. the 14th century medieval times, that could be cheerfully turned on its head with such an attitude infusion.
And then it got serious anyway. Worse than that, it got serious and corny.
The story is about a trio of squires whose knightly liege has just bought the farm and is now unable to compete in jousting tournaments. In need of the money that the prizes can bring them, the leader of the trio, William Thatcher (Heath Ledger), decides to train for jousting and disguise himself as a knight in order to compete in the tourney. His co-squires, level-headed Roland (Mark Addy) and rash Wat (Alan Tudyk), are at first reluctant but then fully support their brother-now-in-arms. Along the way to their first tournament, they run into a vagabond who just happens to be Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), he of eventual "Canterbury Tales" fame. Thus, the silly nature of the story continues as Chaucer is presented as a gambling addict who often loses his clothes, yet is skilled in words, able in forging patents of nobility, and dead-on as a ring announcer giving rousing introductions for William. William takes the pseudonym "Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein," and soon the gang of misfits are reveling as William's skill wins him mathces in tourney after tourney.
Before the whole thing's over, William will have gained one more misfit follower (Laura Fraser), a love interest (Shannyn Sossamon), and an arch enemy (Rufus Sewell). It all looks like the perfect set-up for a rousing medieval sports movie. Unfortunately, it decides, one-by-one, to introduce and carry-out every cliched situation in the land of movies.
First there's the love interest, and that one side plot would've been enough on its own. Here, Sossamon's noble's daughter Jocelyn looks and acts like she was plucked from a 20th century mall and isn't very endearing as a love interest. That doesn't really matter; it's all just there for William and Jocelyn to go through the normal movie courtship rituals. This is entertaining enough, peppered with talk of poetry, flowers, and what one would do to prove one's love. There's even a dance number that is unabashed in its goofiness. It all would have fit in just fine with this goofy movie, corniness and all.
But then there's another sub-plot involving William and his longing to see his long-lost father, hoping to make daddy proud of the man he's become. And then the main bad guy, the incredibly condescending Count Adhemar, who established himself and then disappeared early on, suddenly re-appears to inject the movie with an overdone evil presence. After about an hour-and-a-half of the movie, by which time it could have ended satisfactorily, we are stuck with these subplots and we know exactly how they are going to end. And, somewhere along the way, the humorous atmosphere that made it fun to begin with has slowly fizzled away. The rock music comes back every so often and starts to sound disruptive, and there isn't any more of that 20th century sporting event feel. It gives way to some trite sentimental scenes and a lot of blatant audience manipulation. And the last scene just isn't enough to bring that missing fun back in to the story.
The story is overloaded with plot where it doesn't need any, and that's surprising because it's written (and directed) by Brian Helgeland. Helgeland did an incredible job of bringing together and compacting James Ellroy's novel, L.A. Confidential, in to a concise and well-paced script. A Knight's Tale could have used a similar treatment. Its latter acts detract from a movie that could have stood up for itself with its funny irreverance. It should have remained a spirited movie from start to finish. It is too bad that it doesn't.
A Knight's Tale seemed as if it could have been very bad, given its ad campaign flaunting Queen's sports stadium standard "We Will Rock You" as the backdrop for a jousting movie. It began by surprising me with how fun it actually was, and that was a good way to start. It's ultimately disappointing because it just gets more and more boring as it goes, sputtering to a finish. With a few cuts to the story here and there, it could have been the gleefully anachronistic medieval sports movie that it had the potential to be.
©Jeffrey Chen, May 15, 2001