When Alec Guinness unsheathed his laser-sword in "Star Wars," he demonstrated how sizzling knightliness could be when placed "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away."
The jousting movie "A Knight's Tale" wants to achieve that same dizzying impact by setting medieval sports to arena rock. The concept is high. The result is as flat as a year-old beer commercial.
The 14th-century sports fans belt out Queen's "We Will Rock You." The plot about a peasant boy besting noblemen at their own games is suitably "Rocky." He clinches his romance with a princess when he leads aristocrats in retro-neo-disco-dancing as David Bowie warbles "Golden Years."
Unfortunately, I kept thinking of "Grease" rather than "Saturday Night Fever": Heath Ledger plays a teen-rebel role with all the passion and fierceness of his fellow golden-locked Australian Olivia Newton-John.
As a writer, the moviemaker, Brian Helgeland, proved himself an ace when he penned "Conspiracy Theory," an underrated paranoid thriller-romance that featured Mel Gibson at his most mercurial. Helgeland went on to co-write the Academy Award-winning script for "L.A. Confidential" with director Curtis Hanson.
As a writer-director, it's hard to tell what Helgeland can do. Gibson thought enough of him to star in Helgeland's hit writing-directing debut, "Payback," but then Gibson reshot and recut this loner's revenge fantasy. What emerged was like a design for a bad-boy Disneyland attraction: "Noirland." I wondered whether Helgeland the director had made Helgeland the writer lazy - whether he'd convinced the inky side of himself that sheer "vision" could carry the day.
"A Knight's Tale" is a grander case of filmmaker's folly. Helgeland reimagines medieval characters as our own sorts of celebrities and rowdies. But the quality of this reimagining is anorexically thin. Helgeland reveals in the introduction to his just-published shooting script (Newmarket Press) that the story of a peasant becoming a knight is in part an allegory for a screenwriter becoming a director.
But the analogies aren't parallel. Our hero becomes more forceful as a knight. Helgeland loses force as a director - almost as soon as the narrative proper starts, you feel you're in shaky hands.
Ledger plays William Thatcher, the squire of a nobleman who dies - apparently of dysentery - right before the final bout of a match he would have won by staying on his horse. Thatcher persuades the other men in the knight's pit crew - Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) - that he can take the dead man's place. He trains and continues to joust under the name of Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein from Gelderland.
We're supposed to read into William's character the knightly virtues of courage and constancy, but in this movie "changing your stars" comes off as upward mobility.
From the start, what's most contemporary isn't the movie's deliberately anachronistic content but its willingness to sacrifice matters of mortal gravity for a joke. The knight's death rattles are an excuse for a series of loose-bowel riffs. "His spirit has left him but his stench remains," quips Roland.
What did he do to deserve such disrespect? Apparently, all we need to know is that he left his motley retinue penniless and hungry. When William feels the heft of his first purse, he resolves that he'll never be hungry again.
Helgeland banks that we'll love William simply because he's bold - which is also the only advantage William has with his lance. (He's a lot better with the sword.) Generally, the filmmaker relies on the actors not merely to flesh out the characters, but also to give them bone and sinew. And the task is too great for this cast.
Almost every character is pinned and labeled like a butterfly in a collection - Ledger's William as boy hero, Addy's Roland as life-affirming endomorph and Tudyk's Wat as antic sidekick. Helgeland had the good instinct to make "Geoff Chaucer" (Paul Bettany) part of the team, but then gave him nothing genuinely witty to say. It's hard to believe in crowds going wild when he introduces William/Ulrich, in the manner of a ringside announcer, as "Seeker of Serenity, Protector of Italian Virginity, Enforcerrrrrrr of the Lord God."
Still, Bettany's Chaucer, as narrow and sharp as a spike, has more personality than either William's girlfriend, Princess Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), or his adversary, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sowell). Sossamon glides through like a mannequin on a runway, showing off century-hopping high fashion without betraying any ardor whatsoever. You can't help thinking that if William wants to change his stars he should hook up with his armorer, Kate (Laura Fraser), who really knows how to wield a hammer. Sewell, as the reigning champ and all-around bad guy, mistakes a cocked eyebrow for a rounded performance.
Americans have cross-fertilized old and new since Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Comic-book and sci-fi pulp writers transposed knights into outer space long before George Lucas did.
But where previous popular artists exploited the friction between American know-how and the mysticism of medieval times, Helgeland merely heats up new-millennial mob fevers and lets them run rampant through the Middle Ages. He wants to make the past immediate and real, but all he gets is mock reality - and it doesn't approach the coiling bite of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
He misses out on the lure of the past. The movie won't inspire anyone to pick up Thomas Mallory or Chaucer. If it's a hit, the most it can aspire to is spinning off a Princess Jocelyn fashion line or a series of armored costumes for Halloween. Even the jousts grow repetitive. You may leave agreeing with Jocelyn: "Better a silly girl with a flower than a silly boy with a horse and stick."
'A Knight's Tale'
Starring Heath Ledger
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland
Released by Sony Pictures
Running time 132 minutes
Sun score * 1/2