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Black Knight

Ok, I take back all those nasty things I said about Serendipity. It looks positively inspired compared to the comic stylings of Black Knight. This Martin Lawrence vehicle is so awful, so pathetic, so genuinely horrible
that words cannot adequately describe its shortcomings. But I'll try anyway.

The movie begins with a scene of Martin Lawrence brushing his teeth while he dances badly to some mindless hip-hop song. Apparently, we're supposed to laugh at the sight of Martin's suggestive dance moves or his obsession with dental care, though the only thing that I noticed was Lawrence's near-neurotic desire to mug for the camera. Despite the fact that this five-minute sequence has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, it is nonetheless indicative.

Lawrence plays Jamal Walker, an unambitious nice guy who's working at a medieval theme park near his home in South Central LA. Though it's hard to imagine that even one facility would succeed in that neighborhood, another medieval theme park is about to open a few blocks away. Jamal is feeling unappreciated in his current job, so he decides to apply at the other establishment. But on his way over, something mysterious happens.

Actually, it's not mysterious at all, just inane. The film's screenwriters (Peter Gaulke & Gerry Swallow, who were responsible for the loathsome Say  It Isn't So) needed a way to transport Jamal back to the Middle Ages, and a drop in a local river was the best they could come up with. Voila! Jamal finds himself in 14th-century England, though the reason I know it's supposed to be the 14th century is the press material tells me so.

The movie's only funny conceit (and I do mean 'only') is that, for the next few scenes, Jamal doesn't realize he's gone back in time. He just thinks this new theme park is elaborate and highly realistic. For a second, I
thought the film might have some interesting things to say about how theme parks (and other forms of entertainment) have distorted reality in our contemporary culture. Silly me.

In the castle, Jamal is mistaken for a messenger bringing news of a French duke's impending visit and nuptials to the king's daughter. This buys him some time, and he soon realizes that this is not a theme park. He also notices that the king is not a particularly nice guy but that one of his chambermaids, Victoria, is radiantly beautiful, despite the modes of personal hygiene at the time. To make things more complicated, Victoria (played by the radiantly beautiful Marsha Thomason) is involved in a rebel plot to kill the king and bring justice to the peasants. There's also Knolte (Tom Wilkinson, the upcoming In the Bedroom), a dissolute knight who was once a great leader; the king's daughter, who takes a fancy to Jamal; and a deposed queen beloved by the serfs. All of these intricacies are designed to distract you from the story's stupidity and ever-present cliches. But like so much of this film, they are unsuccessful.

The first half hour of Black Knight is merely boring, but that felt like pure joy compared to the film's last hour. The movie goes irretrievably wrong in a big set piece where Martin Lawrence gets funky. Continuing the awful tradition of the black man teaching rhythm-less white folks how to dance, Jamal leads the king and his court in a rousing rendition of Sly & the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music." I suspect we're supposed to laugh at the sight of a king in crown and tights doing some version of the electric slide or maybe it's the sound of a lute band doing a perfect imitation of '70s funk or maybe just the mere incongruity of it all.

In any event, after this travesty, the movie trots out every possible cliche. The dissolute knight comes back to lead his merry band. Jamal rouses the peasants with a hearty speech full of contemporary references. Victoria, who was initially repulsed by Jamal, finds him endearing. And, surprise of all surprises, Jamal finds himself back in South Central by movie's end. Along the way, Martin does so much mugging for the camera I began to wonder if there was some deep psychological problem on display. As one of the characters points out (in a quote I'm sure will wind up in reviews across the country), "You have to admire his commitment. It's no longer funny, but he refuses to give up on the joke."

Now, I should point out that I actually like Martin Lawrence sometimes. I enjoyed Big Momma's House quite a bit. But Black Knight is no Big Momma's House, and anyone who tells you differently is being paid to do so. 

J. Robert Parks 11/19/2001


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