The Mummy Returns mauled A Knight's Tale at the box office last weekend ' a pity since, in my opinion, it's not near as entertaining. The medieval equivalent of a WWF smackdown, A Knight's Tale stars Heath Ledger as William Thatcher (or is it William Thatcher as Heath Ledger?), a squire who passes himself off as a lord. For not only does Thatcher like to lance a lot, jousting being restricted to the aristocracy, he also wants to "change my stars," which is Anglo Saxon for "Just do it." Don't laugh. This knight's shining armor actually has a pair of Nike swooshes on it, just one example of the movie's gleefully crass anachronisms. Writer/director/producer Brian Helgeland, who set his sights on Shakespeare in Love and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, seems to have had the time of his life missing both targets.
And so we get none other than "Geoff" Chaucer (the enjoyable Paul Bettany), storing up material for The Canterbury Tales by serving as Thatcher's PR flack. "Chaucer's the name, writing's the game," the scribe says by way of introducing himself, and you can hardly believe Helgeland didn't go with "Chaucer's the name, don't wear it out." For A Knight's Tale appears to be set in both the 1380s and the 1980s. Crowds at the jousting tournaments clap their hands to Queen's "We Will Rock You," then do the wave. And so forth. Funny how almost the exact same songs seem wrong in Shrek and right here. What keeps the movie from degenerating into Men in Tights is Ledger, who never lets on that his tongue is drilling a hole through his cheek. Hired for his resemblance to fellow Aussie Andy Gibb, Ledger proves he's a swain who can swoon.
Making her major motion picture debut, Shannyn Sossamon is what Thatcher's swooning over, and though she can't act worth a damn, she looks great in a series of costumes that, according to the press material, "embody the hip, modern edge of this timeless story." Hip? I don't think so. Nor is the story timeless. On the contrary, half the fun is watching the past and present clang their swords, the sparks keeping me awake through the movie's long, long third act. A Knight's Tale never rises to the giddy heights of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, which also threw everything but the kitchen sink into its postmod stew. But it inhabits the lower depths with aplomb, never stooping to the potty humor that Shrek felt obligated to indulge in. Of course, when encased in armor, passing gas is the last thing you want to do.