by Ed Symkus
For some filmmakers, nitpicky reviewers are the bane of their existence, especially those critics who carefully comb a movie for minor anachronisms -- you know, a distant airplane in a Western or a forgotten watch on the wrist of a Pilgrim -- and then go on to trumpet said filmmaker's carelessness in print. But that won't be happening in this adventure-comedy-romance. Nope, no accidents here; the folks who made this one absolutely revel in the idea of contemporary things being out of place in the past.
Here we are in the Europe of the 13th century, and before the film is but a few minutes old, a whole lot of extras are watching the first of many jousting matches and lip-synching along to a blaring recording of Queen's "We Will Rock You." And later on, when all sorts of nobles gather together for a feast and a proper dance -- in one of the film's beautifully lit interiors -- Carter Burwell's period music somehow seamlessly slips into David Bowie's "Golden Years," as do the dancers segue into something resembling modern pop dance.
Except for the fact that, at least music-wise, the well is gone to a few too many times, there's no room for putting the idea down. It's fun, it works, and it's in the original script. Brian Helgeland, who before this adapted the script of L.A. Confidential for the screen and both wrote and directed the Point Blank remake, Payback, has fashioned a film that may be formulaic in the plot department, but rarely stops jumping off the screen with fresh, enjoyable ideas.
That plot has to do with young, strapping William (Heath Ledger, from The Patriot), the lowly assistant to a knight who is accidentally killed in a jousting tournament. A right time-right place scenario has William taking his master's place and identity, passing for a knight, and working his way up the ranks by duking it out with lances on horseback against other real knights.
Accompanied by a couple of pals for as much support as they can muster, William, now known to all as Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein, learns fast and well how to score points and/or knock others off their steeds. With the addition of another crew member -- there's a bit of a stretch here -- named Geoffrey Chaucer (played with hilarious scene-stealing panache by relative newcomer Paul Bettany), his newfound fame starts to spread, partly because the young Chaucer really does turn out to be a man of words.
It's the Chaucer character's entrance that gives the film much of its raucous, rollicking flavor. He's first encountered totally nude (seen only from behind), casually walking down the road, a victim of some bad gambling habits. But before long, he becomes William's public relations man and excitable announcer, sort of an early version of that fellow in today's boxing matches who yells, "Let's get ready to rumble!"
Taking on the shape and style of a road picture, there's soon a bad guy, Count Adhemer (Rufus Sewell, he of seriously handsome face and incredibly intense eyes), and a beautiful maiden (first timer Shannyn Sossamon), who becomes the object of desire for both hero and villain. Unfortunately it's here that the film's two biggest problems arise. There's too little of the talented Sewell's swaggering character. And not only is there too much of Sossamon's, but she's just not the right person for the part. She comes off as a limited actress with a wooden personality -- certainly pleasant to look at, but hardly anyone who would be fought over by two guys on the prowl. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that yet another member of William's ever-burgeoning crew, the perky Kate (Laura Fraser), is by far the more attractive -- both physically and emotionally -- woman in the story.
But the film's weaknesses are offset by the rowdy atmosphere, the thrilling jousting matches (who would've thought there could be so many variations of how to photograph a quick minute of two riders hurtling toward each other), and by a side story of William being reunited with the father he had long ago been parted from.
The energy level hardly ever lags, and the good humor, thanks to Bettany's ambitious performance, is constant. Some will label this a comedic version of Gladiator set on horseback, but that's far from an accurate description. And even though there is a dollop of (unbelievable) romance and some very handsome men, this is definitely aimed at an audience of boys -- of all ages.