Now that the craze for extreme sports and jackass stunts is near its glue-sniffing high, jousting is due for a comeback. Think about it: Two guys charging at each other with big wooden poles, trying to knock each other goofy—it’s got more joie de vivre than backyard wrestling, and it’s cheaper than helicopter skiing. It’ll spread like wildfire.
Lunkheaded teenagers and drunken frat boys in the market for dangerous new fun can draw inspiration from A Knight’s Tale, writer-director Brian Helgeland’s Rocky-in-a-tunic story of a poor kid who makes good, thanks to his talent with a stick. In case the ultraviolence angle doesn’t draw in the Clearasil crowd, the filmmakers have assembled a soundtrack featuring several ’70s rock classics currently in heavy rotation at arena football games and monster truck rallies across the country.
The film’s heap of anachronism amounts to a crowd-pleasing but hollow action picture that aspires to very little beyond its central gimmick, yet still manages to stretch itself out for well over two hours. If you can stay in the saddle that long, A Knight’s Tale won’t knock you off your horse, but its hardheaded action is enough to nudge you a little bit.
Our hero is William Thatcher (Heath Ledger), a squire to a nondescript nobleman and jouster who dies before the opening credits are finished. William throws on his boss’s armor and wins a jousting competition. Stoked by success, William decides to “change his stars” and become a knight who jousts and has swordfights and chases noble girls.
A chance encounter with a naked gambler named Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany, actually quite entertaining) allows William to get the proper documentation to continue his ruse as Sir Ulric von Lichtenstein of Gelderland. He begins to enter tournaments, with Chaucer giving Michael Buffer-style announcements before William crams that big wooden pole up his foes’ asses in front of crowds clapping along to “We Will Rock You.”
The rest of the film’s creative energy is expended on smarmy non-sequiturs (a talented blacksmith brands her work with the Nike swoosh; William calls his girl a fox) and the truly bizarre wardrobe of royal hottie Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), who wears everything from multicolored hair extensions to a black mesh dress revealing way more cleavage than the normal 14th-century damsel could get away with.
Helgeland seems to have written the most formulaic script he could muster, then sprinkled it with as many quirks as possible, hoping to somehow disguise what he’s selling while still giving his dumber viewers what they want. The villain, Count Ahdemar (Rufus Sewell), is depressingly cardboard, and there’s never a moment’s doubt he’ll get what’s coming to him. William’s romance with Jocelyn is pretty stiff, largely because acting newcomer Sossamon can’t do much more than smile like a Renaissance jack-o-lantern. There’s even a reconciliation with William’s blind father to wring a few tears out of the weaker audience members.
But in the arena, A Knight’s Tale has something to sell. The jousting sequences have adrenaline, and Helgeland works enough variations on the theme (like when Jocelyn demands that William lose, so he gets the crap beaten out of him for a while) to keep the action fairly fresh. The silly soundtrack notwithstanding, it’s easy to share the visceral thrill of watching this kind of reckless endangerment.
Those moments are fleeting, however. Helgeland—who co-wrote L.A. Confidential and directed Mel Gibson’s Payback until losing the final cut in a well-publicized disagreement with Mel—seems ill at ease with the conventions of a popcorn movie. He edits his joust sequences with a spastic touch that dulls their impact, and the movie is so long that everything gets a bit repetitive.
But the fun of watching guys get knocked off horses doesn’t dim. Hopefully we’ll turn on ESPN2 some day soon, and instead of the World’s Strongest Man competition, we’ll see early-round coverage of the Nabisco Bantamweight Joustoff from Palm Springs. As long as Thin Lizzy isn’t blaring in the background, they can count me in.
A Knight’s Tale (PG-13) HH Directed by Brian Helgeland Starring Heath Ledger, Mark Addy and Rufus Sewell.