A Knight’s Tale

"In what world could you have ever beaten me?"

A Knight’s Tale takes a series of archetypical film formulas — the underdog movie, the summer blockbuster, the poor-boy-rich-girl romance — and elevates them to their near-ideal forms. It’s a stirring testament to pure entertainment; gleefully anachronistic, unabashedly crowd-pleasing and wonderfully directed. In a genre where “dumb” is almost a requirement, this is dumb done right.

The opening sequence is a Medieval jousting tournament in which the peasant audience bangs their hands on the wooden railing in sync and sings along with Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. Already, the movie had grabbed me. It seems that one of the competitors has up and died, which leaves his three squires — William (Heath Ledger), Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) — with no money, no place to go and, therefore, no food to eat. William decides to enter the tournament in his late master’s place and hopefully earn enough money to buy him and his companions some grub.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, William turns out to be a more-than-adequate jouster and a superb swordfighter, which earns the three of them some sixteen pieces of silver. They’re about ready to divide the loot and go get themselves a room at some posh hotel, but then William gets an idea: why not do this for a living? They could use the money to buy the equipment they need, train for a while and then go around winning tournaments, become popular and get rich!

There’s only one problem: a contestant must prove himself to be of noble birth, tracing back at least four generations; evidence that requires official patents that they don’t have. Luckily, in their travels, they run across Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), who lost all of his clothes feeding his gambling addiction. Chaucer, famous writer that he is, offers to fake the patents if they’d just feed him and clothe him. They make a deal and William successfully enters the next big tournament, where he falls for a lady (Shannyn Sossamon) and starts a rivalry with an arrogant noble (Rufus Sewell).

A Knight’s Tale is rife with pop-culture references — a blacksmith engraves the Nike logo on William’s armor; a helmet flies into the crowd of spectators to be clamored over by raucous peasants — but the film never seems snarky, cynical or overly “hip”. It is, however, a lot of fun, working as a comedy and an exciting adventure yarn. The jousting scenes are exaggerated and overblown, but they work; the climactic joust is unexpectedly heartstopping and the applause that erupts after its conclusion is genuine.

I still haven’t warmed up to Heath Ledger as an actor, and the best performance that comes out of this decidedly not performance-based effort is from Paul Bettany, who’s hilariously cocky as the Geoffrey Chaucer. I also liked the underrated Mark Addy (The Full Monty), who plays with the sidekick archetype by actually having an active role in the proceedings.

All of this, without exception, has been seen before. But the concoction that writer director Brian Helgeland (Payback) puts together here is clever, appealing and amusing. Blockbuster filmmakers have a temptation to overwhelm the audience with special effects, relentless action and anything to distract from how weak the story actually is. How good to see a film that simply kept a smile on my face.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

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Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

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The Window

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Score: B+

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Score: B

Street of Chance

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Score: C

The Taste of Money

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