`Knight' forgets its shining armor

Review: In this lackluster tale, Martin Lawrence just doesn't give his character the oomph to carry the film.

November 21, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

At least Black Knight comes with its own built-in movie review.

About 25 minutes into this interminable film, as Martin Lawrence tries to prove he's a renowned court jester, one medieval noble says to another, "It's no longer funny, but he refuses to give up on the joke."

No truer words have been spoken on screen this year. The only thing perhaps more appropriate would have been a shot of Lawrence beating a dead horse.

In Black Knight, Lawrence plays Jamal Walker, a worker at a decaying medieval-themed amusement park who falls into a moat and magically is sent back to the 14th century. For our purposes, it's important to remember two things: Jamal is the thickest human being alive, which explains why it takes him so long to figure out what's happening, and in his mind, he's the coolest being on the planet, able to shuck and jive and rumble with the best of them.

And there's the joke: 21st-century black dude meets 14th-century knights and nobles, 'tude meets chivalry. Mistaken for an envoy of a powerful French duke, Jamal is welcomed with great aplomb, and his strange ways soon endear him to the local king. That's fine with Jamal, except he's really after the lovely Victoria (British actress Marsha Thomason), who is part of a scheme to kill the king and restore the deposed queen to her rightful throne.

What a pickle for poor Jamal. He just wants to get back to his preferred millennium - preferably after bedding Victoria, a medieval feminist who chafes at the constrictions imposed on her by feudal society. But events conspire against him, as he first inadvertently saves the king, then (ever the opportunist) works to depose him and win Victoria's favor.

Hilarity ensues.

Lawrence, who just doesn't have the presence to pull off this sort of attitude-dependent farce, sleepwalks his way through the film. As a character, Jamal is strictly untapped potential; he never evolves in a believable way. When big laughs seem about to happen, when it seems that the film might finally take off and be as outrageous as it thinks it is, the most Lawrence elicits is chuckles.

There is one brilliant scene - Jamal, ordered to entertain the king with music, gets the royal court bopping to the beat of Sly & the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music." And Lawrence's supporting cast belongs in a far better movie. Thomason is immensely appealing, though her character is woefully underwritten and cliched. And the great Tom Wilkinson, as a lapsed knight who finds renewed inspiration in Jamal's bumbling heroism, lends the film more dignity and presence than it deserves.

Lawrence is one of the film's executive producers. Doubtless, he thought that his almost continual presence on screen would guarantee comic mayhem. Unfortunately, it just leads to comic malaise. The best thing about Black Knight is when it finally says goodnight.

Black Knight

Starring Martin Lawrence

Directed by Gil Junger

Rated PG-13 (adult language, crude humor)

Released by 20th Century Fox

Running time 96 minutes

Sun score * 1/2

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