In addition to the super-sized special-effects-laden battle scenes, last summer's Revolutionary War epic "The Patriot" offered audiences a good glimpse at an Australian-born sex symbol. And though this statement would equally apply to lead actor Mel Gibson, the sex symbol in question was actually 21-year old Heath Ledger. Now, almost a year since that career-defining role comes "A Knight's Tale", which is not only Ledger's first film since "The Patriot", but is also his first lead starring role. Unfortunately, other than a mere handful of memorable moments, "A Knight's Tale" is best left untold.
The titular knight is William Thatcher (Ledger), who isn't actually a knight, since he is not of 'noble birth'-- he is actually a mere servant to a knight, relegated to the lower rungs of the medieval socioeconomic ladder. But when the knight suffers an untimely death, Thatcher dons the armor of his slain master, impersonating him in several jousting competitions throughout the French countryside. Accompanying Thatcher on his world tour are a number of good friends who keep the wannabe-knight out of mischief. There is the portly Roland (Mark Addy of "The Full Monty"), the hot-headed Wat (Alan Tudyk of "28 Days"), the saucy blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser of "The Man in the Iron Mask"), and none other than Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany of "The Land Girls") himself, the author of "Canterbury Tales" (from which "A Knight's Tale" is very loosely derived).
Trouble begins when Thatcher crosses paths with the Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell of "Dark City"), who, like himself, has an eye on become the 'world champion' in jousting. Adhemar will stop at nothing to win, including exposing Thatcher for the fraud that he is. To further complicate matters, Thatcher finds himself smitten by a noble named Lady Jocelyn (newcomer Shannyn Sossamon), who has also caught the attention of Adhemar. Will Thatcher steal the championship title from the evil Count and win the hand of the fair maiden? Do you have to ask?
The man behind the camera is writer/director/producer Brian Helgeland, who is better known as having been the scribe for "L.A. Confidential" and the director of the 1999 retro-revenge thriller "Payback". This time around, love it or hate it, Helgeland has injected the trappings of the sports movie and modern pop culture sensibility into the medieval costume drama. The end result is something that will probably seem familiar to fans of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" or "Xena: Warrior Princess", where people of the 14th century speak in 21st century vernacular and know how to do 'the wave'. Obviously, this is a movie not to be taken too seriously.
Unfortunately, this fusion of the modern and medieval doesn't always work, such as the film's hokey opening, where an eager crowd chants lines from Queen's "We Will Rock You", or a dance attended by William and Jocelyn that quickly descends into camp to the tune of David Bowie's "Golden Years"-- the only thing missing in the film's soundtrack was Gary Glitter's "Rock 'n Roll (Part 2)". It is also interesting to note that even though most of the film takes place in France, it seems most of the people William meets speak with British accents-- but then again, it is the same phenomenon witnessed in "Enemy at the Gates" and "Gladiator".
However, the use of anachronisms does work to some degree with the film's supporting characters. Though there are a number of comic misfires along the way, William's sidekicks (particularly Roland, Wat, and Geoffrey) get the best lines in the film, as their exaggerated character traits combine with their contemporary wisecracks. As for Ledger himself, he delivers a passable performance as the film's protagonist, though nowhere near the credible work he did in "The Patriot". Newcomer Sossamon slums through her portrayal of William's love interest, while Sewell is tolerable as the film's snarling yet thinly-sketched villain. Finally, Helgeland might want to spend a little more money on his extras in his future films-- the numerous crowd scenes in the film are populated by the most apathetic extras I have ever seen, whose lethargic cheers and faux enthusiasm seem almost befitting of the material.
Though the running time of "A Knight's Tale" is just a little over two hours, it feels a lot more like three. For up-and-coming actor Heath Ledger, this inconsistent mix of old and new ends up being a lackluster starring vehicle. It is also a disappointing turn for writer/director Brian Helgeland who, only a few short years ago, wrote the award-winning screenplay for "L.A. Confidential". Though "A Knight's Tale" had a few sparking moments of wit and charm, overall, this tedious popcorn flick ends up being a chore (and mostly a bore) to sit through.