Black Knight

"You have to respect his commitment," the evil King Leo (Kevin Conway) comments about Martin Lawrence's Jamal Walker in Black Knight, "even after it isn't funny, he keeps doing the bit."

You have to respect a script that gives a critic that kind of ammunition. Amazingly, though, it would be a cheap shot. Luckily for Lawrence and Black Knight, enough clever lines and ideas exist to keep the movie afloat in the sea of Lawrence's tired antics.

And they are tired from the outset. Lawrence mugs and whoops his way through a title sequence that seems designed to keep people from noticing that anybody else is in this movie, but then, that attitude fits his character perfectly.

Jamal thinks himself quite the playah, living in a smooth bachelor pad in South Central L.A. on the corner of Normandie and Florence (hey, hey, there's actual wit going on here). But in reality, he works at a rundown amusement park barely one step above a traveling carnival.

Facing competition from a rival medieval-themed park, Jamal's boss Mrs. Bostick (Isabell Monk) struggles to keep her business going, with little help from her selfish employees. Perhaps you can see Jamal's character arc laid out neatly, and yes, the modern day scenes could not play out more ham-fistedly if written by a pig farmer.

Thankfully, Jamal soon falls into the park's "moat," only to find himself on the shore of an English lake. There he encounters Knolte (Tom Wilkinson), a disgraced and drunken knight who Jamal mistakes for homeless. Like Alec Guinness in Star Wars, Wilkinson's appearance raises the bar for both the story and the acting, forcing Lawrence to calm down a bit. As a result, Black Knight settles into a fun groove.

Mistaken for a Norman messenger after shouting out his address (see above), Jamal finds himself in the middle of political intrigue. The current king of England usurped the crown with the aid of Sir Percival (Vincent Regan, this week's stock British villain). All those who oppose King Leo find their heads on spikes, the first element that convinces Jamal that he is not in an amusement park.

A rebellion brews within the castle, led by the feisty Victoria (Marsha Thomason), coincidentally the only other black person in England. As has become standard for historical comedies, Victoria is clearly a woman meant for the 20th Century, with anachronistic ideas and attitudes that serve to tame Jamal and teach him to be a better person.

It all plays out as expected, but again, the script (by Darryl J. Quarles and Peter Gaulke & Gerry Swallow) rises above expectations. Jamal styles himself "Sir Skywalker," and sly nods to Star Wars abound. One classic scene from the Death Star adapts easily to a castle courtyard escape, and of course, Jamal's actual appearance as the fabled Black Knight bears more than a little resemblance to Darth Vader.

Moreover, the film tweaks the conventions of historical comedies. From the trailer you've seen Jamal get the medieval band to play "Dance To The Music." The actual scene takes its time to build, making it almost believable that Jamal could get these musicians to play Sly and The Family Stone. And the deposed queen's attempt to give a rousing speech to her supporters will pretty much ruin Henry V for Shakespeare fans.

Despite some cleverness, director Gil Junger betrays his television origins all over the place, which bogs down the film. Every location feels small. Never before has all of England seemed able to be traversed in an hour or two.

Perhaps because of Lawrence's rumored refusal to make eye contact with other people, Junger overuses close-ups to tell the story whenever possible. This device only adds to both Lawrence's bad reputation and the claustrophobic feel of the film.

And that's actually a shame. Lawrence started out in film giving quick, bright performances before stardom pushed him over the edge to constant clownishness. In Black Knight, he has to stretch a few unused acting muscles, to far better effect than in the utterly stupid Big Momma's House. While not quite back to what made him charming in the first place, he gives a few line readings that hint at actual character before shifting back into buffoon mode. With the right project, his next film may be even better, and he may start really deserving that $20 million a movie.

So call Black Knight surprising. By no means a classic, it still has an amiable charm. You could do worse if Harry Potter is sold out.

What's It Worth? $5

Derek McCaw

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