It's nearly time for the game to begin. The fans are waiting: the wealthy in their boxes, the masses in the cheap seats. Anticipation runs high. Someone starts stomping on the floor. The pounding grows, takes on a rhythm, and becomes Queen's “We Will Rock You.” The contenders take the field, and a section of fans starts the wave rolling through the arena.
Horses paw and snort, and their mounted knights grip their lances. The flag drops. The joust begins.
What? Wait a minute. This isn't a football game?
Nope, this is A Knight's Tale, the brainchild of producer-director-writer Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar for his L.A. Confidential screenplay and directed Mel Gibson in Payback.
For those willing to swallow the juxtaposition of modern music and medieval warfare - and admittedly, it takes awhile to get used to the incongruity - Helgeland's work is a raucous ride. It puts the same sort of spin on one of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that was put on William Shakespeare in Tom Stoppard's movie, Shakespeare in Love.
The music is a big part of A Knight's Tale. Set to songs such as WAR's “Low Rider,” Bachman Turner Overdrive's “Takin' Care of Business,” Eric Clapton's “Further On Up the Road,” and Thin Lizzy's “The Boys Are Back in Town,” the movie draws parallels between modern and medieval sports mania, turning knights into the superstars of their day, complete with games, playoffs, and MVPs.
Heath Ledger (The Patriot) plays William, the son of a peasant. A squire to a fading jousting champion, William dons his employer's armor and mounts his horse when the employer dies before the final round of a big tournament in France. He is taking a major risk, for the tournaments are open only to nobility; peasants need not apply. But William and his friends, the soft-hearted Roland (Mark Addy of The Full Monty) and tempestuous Wat (Alan Tudyk of Wonder Boys), are near starvation and need the prize money.
To the trio's surprise, William wins the tournament and keeps his real identity hidden. With the money, Roland intends to go home to England and Wat plans to fill his stomach. But William has tasted glory and is determined to continue jousting, despite the many risks. With Roland and Wat acting as his squires, William heads for the next stop in the tournament circuit. Along the way, he acquires Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) as another squire, Kate (Laura Fraser) as his personal armorer, and Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland as his new identity.
Because of “Ulrich's” jousting prowess, most people accept him at face value. The exceptions are the Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), a young woman who is tired of being pursued for her beauty, and Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell of Dangerous Beauty), the reigning champion who has his eye on Jocelyn. Adhemar soon learns that Ulrich/William is a formidable rival in the arenas of jousting and of wooing. So what's he to do? Come up with a few dirty tricks, of course.
If you consider each element separately, not much of A Knight's Tale is original. But Helgeland combines things in wildly original ways.
The cast has just as much fun as Helgeland. Ledger makes a fine romantic hero; Sewell is delightfully over the top as the villain; Bettany steals the show with his florid introductions of “Sir Ulrich,” and Addy, Tudyk, and Fraser are perfect sidekicks. Only Sossamon lacks any spark, but she gets to wear outrageous hairstyles, so that counts.
Forget about historical accuracy, because there isn't much. Surprisingly, however, A Knight's Tale does have a message, which is that true nobility is a matter of behavior, not birth.
Now that's a concept that should really rock you.