A Knight to Forget: 'Black Knight'

After the deluge of great, memorable movies that opened last week, it didn't exactly take a degree in rocket science to figure out that a monumental, movie-less dead zone lay directly ahead. That moment is here, sooner than anybody wanted. And the pickings are slimmer than anyone might have guessed.

At press time, there were only two new films opening this week, and neither of them was much to write home about: Spy Game (screened too late for this column; see review in Outtakes) and a little nonstarter called Black Knight.

Black Knight is not exactly a bad movie, at least not in the sense that something like Pootie Tang is a bad movie, or, for that matter, practically anything featuring one or more of the male cast members of Friends. In other words, yes, you'll probably wind up feeling that devoting 90-some minutes of your life to Black Knight was a waste of time — but, on the other hand, the odds are fairly good that you won't end up consumed with an unmanageable amount of burning hatred for the movie, yourself and the world upon leaving the theater. There are no negative subliminal messages in Black Knight (none that I could discern, anyway) suggesting, say, that you run out into the nearest crowd of people and start screaming that Dick Cheney was improperly toilet trained. Last but certainly not least, the film's body count is refreshingly low.

The bottom line is that this is simply another movie so disposable you can practically feel yourself forgetting it even as you're sitting there watching it.

Black Knight is comedian Martin Lawrence's latest project, a Just Visiting in reverse, or, if you prefer, a sort of Evil Dead: Army of Darkness with a touch of ethnic color and without any of the scary stuff. Come to think of it, without too much of the funny stuff, either.

Lawrence plays Jamal, a medieval theme park employee who gets dunked in a funky looking moat and finds himself magically transported back to the actual 14th Century. Lest we forget to mention it (see? The movie's already slipping from memory) the writers dutifully toss in one or two perfunctory nods to Jamal's minor character flaws at the outset so that he can learn to overcome them in the course of his adventure back in time.

Black Knight is all about cutting to the chase. The moat thing happens within the movie's first five minutes, right after the quick and clumsy establishing of Jamal's character flaws (he's apparently a little self-centered and not particularly loyal). Just following an opening credit sequence that plainly announces that what we're about to see is a comedy, the camera practically jams itself up inside Lawrence's mouth and nostrils as he goes about his morning grooming, pulling out nose hairs, flossing his teeth with exaggerated gusto and struggling to dig out ear wax. The sequence is completely disconnected to anything else in the film and has the distinct feel of an outtake, but at least it gives Lawrence a chance to mug and, as such, is actually one of the livelier moments in the movie.

From that point on, Black Knight unfolds like a series of random, predictable and strangely lifeless scenes, most of which feel like we've seen somewhere before. For the most part, the movie functions as a mild — very mild — comedy of mistaken identity, with Jamal hanging out in England circa 1328 and being taken for a messenger from a foreign dignitary. His status fluctuates arbitrarily from one scene to the next; at one moment he accidentally does something of merit and finds himself in the King's favor, in the next moment he's somehow pissed someone off and is in danger of being executed. During its final half-hour, Black Knight moves cautiously into something akin to action mode as Jamal joins a band of rebels bent on deposing the evil, corrupt king.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, there's even a generic scene straight out of Sister Act and a dozen other cookie-cutter films where the movie's rigid, secondary characters unexpectedly break out in a rousing version of a contemporary (20th century contemporary, that is) dance tune. Sister Act had Whoopi's nuns crooning Motown. Black Knight's cheerfully idiotic sequence features a vintage Sly and the Family Stone staple emerging full-blown from a troupe of rhythmically-challenged 14th century musicians. Thankfully, none of the medieval characters actually does any break dancing, but several of them come close.

Other than that dubiously uplifting moment, the funniest bits in Black Knight are also its most down and dirty. Lawrence's reaction to a foul, hole-in-the-ground lavatory is actually amusing, while the movie's biggest laugh is reserved for the scene where an open-mouthed meanie is shoved face-first into a steaming pile of dung. The marriage of medieval crudity and contemporary urban bodily-function-and-toilet-humor would have seemed a natural for Black Knight, but the movie chooses to take the high road, weirdly enough, far too often for its own comedic good. The filmmakers would certainly have benefited from a long look at Monty Python and the Holy Grail before diving into their own watered-down version of the past.

Similarly, although Jamal is a toned-down version of Lawrence's usual jive-talking street persona, the film is surprisingly free of any gags or plot points that directly or even indirectly play off his race. For some odd reason, virtually no one in the lily-white, 14th century village of Black Knight seems to find anything out of the ordinary about a black man in a green football jersey wandering about their insular little world in his Nikes. We don't really expect the movie to make sense (and it doesn't) but tons of opportunities for comic material go untapped.

The movie seems too lazy to really work any of this out, just as it seems too lacking in energy to bother developing a few decent jokes (not to mention characters). Black Knight simply goes through the motions of telling its story, not exactly incompetently, but certainly as if it had been written on autopilot. The feeling is contagious, and it's not long before those of us in the audience begin to feel as if we too are on autopilot, barely there and just waiting for the final credits to roll. Martin Lawrence and his fellow performers seem game enough most of the time, but there's something a little spooky in this basically soul-less bit of business-as-usual passing itself off as fun. Black Knight really isn't very much fun. It's more like a quickie where nobody gets hurt but neither party gets off.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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