In the credits scene of A Knight's Tale, we see the spectators of a medieval jousting tourney behaving in conspicuously modern fashion. Faces are painted, snacks are sold and in the film's most brazen touch, the crowd is making the unmistakable stomp-stomp-clap of Queen's "We Will Rock You." Writer-director Brian Helgeland uses AOR pop songs throughout A Knight's Tale, drawing such overt parallels between ancient jousting and our extreme sports as to make the bread-and-circuses theme of Gladiator seem like the height of subtlety.
How much you like A Knight's Tale depends on how much you accept its soundtrack. If you balk at, for instance, the use of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" as a counterpoint to an armored Heath Ledger's swordfights, you're likely to find the music distracting.
But if you can go with the Jock Jams tunes (which include everything but "Who Let the Dogs Out?"), you might get a kick out of A Knight's Tale. For about an hour. But eventually the giddy appeal of the anachronistic gimmick wears off, and you can't help notice that the film is feather-light and predictably plotted.
Heath Ledger's William Thatcher has the right stuff to be a champion knight, but the wrong lineage: Only the titled gentry can compete "professionally." In dire need of funds and with the help of fellow peasants Roland (The Full Monty's Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), Thatcher pretends to be "Sir William of Lichtenstein" and begins winning big in French jousting matches.
It helps that Thatcher befriends a penniless writer named Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), who forges Sir William's titles and, as his herald, whips up the crowd with hyperbolic spiels that suggest the WWF in literature class. Soon Thatcher wins the eye of a comely noblewoman (Shannyn Sossamon) and the rivalry of the detestable Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell).
Not to be mistaken for a documentary, A Knight's Tale nonetheless reveals a close familiarity, if not letter-perfect fidelity, with the contests and class struggles of the period. Helgeland's credits range from L.A. Confidential to The Postman, and here he credibly shows the rules of jousting and how points are awarded, and he has fun with little touches, like the way the tips of Aldemar's blunted lances have a custom design like a closed fist.
Helgeland gets credit for offering a spectacular action movie that features no actual killing. But though he tries to shoot the jousting scenes in different ways -- knights fall off horses to roll along railings, helmets get knocked off like foul balls -- he can't disguise the fact that they're the same basic scene over and over. Knights ride at each other on horses, their lances splinter impressively against each other's breastplates, and they're either dismounted or they're not. Repeat as necessary.
And at just over two hours, A Knight's Tale goes on far longer than it needs to. I'm not sure when it lost me: Maybe it was when the backstory about William's father received greater prominence. Maybe it was the way Thatcher's pre-feminist smithy (Laura Fraser) put a footwear company's familiar swoosh on his custom-built armor. Or perhaps it was the fancy ball scene, when the courtly dancing gave way to David Bowie's "Golden Years" -- the tune didn't bother me so much as the disco-boogie moves.
Knight's love story definitely proves the flow in its armor. It's not just that Sossamon becomes coiffed and dressed preposterously like Jennifer Lopez, by the end wearing feathers in her hair and see-through blouses and abandoning all pretenses of period propriety. It's that her character is spoiled, vapid and unworthy of the efforts Thatcher makes in her name. Sossamon's undeniably striking but seems to take the film's modern motifs as a reason for not acting at all.
Ledger may look like a studly star from the WB network stable, but he gives a more mature and confident performance than you'd expect, although some of the film's broad comedy and melodramatic emotion still seems past his range. Sewell makes a fittingly hissable villain, but the best players are Bettany and the rest of Thatcher's sidekicks, who help sell the modern/medieval premise while proving to be believable characters, not just comic relief.
A Knight's Tale boldly attempts to craft a different kind of rousing pop movie experience, and you can appreciate the effort if not the results.