Monday, July 21, 2008

REVIEW: First Knight

Clinical psychologists are working night and day to determine what emotion Sean Connery is conveying in this image.

Even though it’s only about 13 years old, I think of First Knight as belonging to a very different era of Hollywood fantasy epics than what we have now. It came prior to computer effects and expert stuntwork, which now let us depict anything a director can possibly imagine. However, coming before the age of ultra-stylized epics doesn’t make First Knight a film that relies more on story or substance. It relies on pure star power, casting trendy Hollywood A-list actors in a King Arthur story and focusing squarely on them to the expense of action or any faithfulness to the Arthurian legend. Actually, it’s supposed to be more faithful to some of the French Arthurian stories, which explains a lot. Damn Gallic snobs.

We open… and what the hell is this? Why are they speaking in French, with Spanish subtitles? Is this DVD some kind of Transatlantic bootleg? Never mind. One trip to the languages menu, and we’re ready to start again.

Oh, yes. Let's skip past the wars and focus on the marrying.

We open with a text crawl that goes on for several paragraphs, explaining that Arthur is leading the great kingdom of Camelot, but that times are hard for everyone, and that Arthur’s traitorous knight Malagant has his own cadre of knights and is competing for power. No mention of Merlin or Morganna here or in the rest of the film, and not even of the Sword in the Stone. They might not even call the sword Excalibur, although I don’t really care enough to go back and check. And a good thing they dumped all of this Arthurian lore too, because we don’t want to distract from the real reason people go to King Arthur movies: Richard Gere! He’s Lancelot, but he’s not a knight yet. He’s just some idiot going from town to town making money by winning bets on his own dueling contests. Gere plays Lancelot a fair amount like he plays Richard Gere. He smirks, he grins, he fights with gloriously minimal effort, he condescends to anyone who would dare think they could challenge him, and he always wins. He estimates his English accent in an interesting way: he speaks kind of softly and somewhat slowly in his regular voice. Way to go, Rich! I think he studied for the role by staring at himself in the mirror and admiring the raw sexiness of his giant horsey face and ruggedly curly hair.

"Repeat after me: 'One of us is Richard Gere. One of us is not. Let's keep this brief."

As soon as he leaves, the village is attacked by Malagant’s knights, who slash people and burn huts in a scene that could have been lifted straight out of a hundred other movies. As his pretext for the attack, Malagant (Ben Cross, the alias of the assembly-line robot that plays the latest ruthless movie tyrant) makes up some crap about the village being lawless and having murdered a few of his knights. In an odd reference to fellow 1995 miscast blockbuster Judge Dredd, he bellows, “I am the law!” The line comes out even goofier than another famous King Arthur opponent’s declaration of, “I’m invincible!”

Guinevere (Julia Ormond) is fearful of Malagant’s obvious intentions to conquer her country, Lyonesse, and so she agrees to marry King Arthur so that Camelot will help protect it. While traveling to Camelot, escorted by some of Arthur’s knights, her caravan gets ambushed by Malagant’s forces, and she is nearly captured until Lancelot intervenes and chops up a few baddies for her. She admires his bravery, but he describes his thought process quite accurately: “Hey beeyatch, I’m Richard Gere! It’s impossible for me to be brave, because it’s impossible for something bad to happen to me. I was just stretching, and a sword just happened to be in my hand, and some baddies just happened to die while I was doing Tai-Chi. So let’s get jiggy with it here in the grass.”

Why did I neglect to mention that Sir John Gielgud is in this movie? Respect.

This turns her on, but she denies it, and he lets her go back to her escort to continue to Camelot, which is probably an amazing city to look at, except that it’s primarily depicted as a matte painting/postcard on the distant horizon. It's also very, very, very blue. Here, she meets King Arthur (Sean Connery), the most celebrated English hero in all of history, who shpeaksh witsh a thhhick Schcottisch accschent for schome reashon. But heck, it’s a movie made for Americans, so all Euro-weenies are the same to us anyway. Guinevere would probably be more compatible with Malagant, since they’re the only two English people in England, but she’s satisfied with marrying a craggy old Scotsman, given that he lives in a city that’s not a pile of straw upon a mud field, and he’s got a bunch of supposedly-proficient knights guarding him.

And let’s talk about those knights for a moment. No Gawain, no Percival, no Galahad. And for good reason, because they couldn’t get Bruce Willis, Tim Robbins, and Brad Pitt to play them. We get only a couple of named knights from the Arthurian legend, most notably Agravaine and Kay (I checked the credits), and they’re pretty much non-factors compared to Sir Geresalot. My guess is that if this film had warranted sequels (which would have been odd, since Arthur dies at the end; SPOILER ALERT!), more recognizable knights played by random expensive actors would have showed up. But in any event, it probably would have been inappropriate to have famous knights in this film, since non-Gere knights have the tactical expertise and survival instinct of Enterprise ensigns and CTU security guards. They also dress up in blue tunics with rectangular metal studs/magnets on the upper chest, making them look less like shining knights, and more like Romulans.

Oh... um. Heh heh heh. Wrong movie. I'll just... erm... pop this one back in the library, and uhhh....

Lancelot wanders into Camelot and gets his chance to hook up with Guinevere again when Arthur, in pimp mode, offers a kiss from the Queen to anyone who can make it through the “Gauntlet,” an obstacle course with rotating medicine balls and jabbing swords (powered by no apparent apparatus) that was likely history’s first Japanese game show. Lancelot first tries to putt a golf ball through it, but upon hearing that he’s supposed to go through himself, he channels his inner Richard Gere to slip on through with Richard Gere ease. Wow! Let’s check the MXC instant replay! This impressive show of X-treme sports prowess impresses Arthur, but makes Guinevere uncomfortable, since she‘s trying to pretend that her heart is with her crusty old speech-slurring fart of a fiancee.

Guinevere is quickly abducted by Malagant’s men, a band of anonymous malcontents who like to use mini-crossbows as their primary weapons. Actually, with their clear technological savvy and boundless ingenuity, I’m not sure why we’re not rooting for them. They take Guinevere back to Malagant’s run-down castle, but they forgot one thing: Richard Gere is Lancelot, and Richard Gere will not be denied. He busts some heads and rescues Guinevere, who’s ultra-sexy now that her thick gown has been torn off, and all she has left is a summer dress. She and Lancelot have a romantic moment when they stop to rest. As it’s raining, Lancelot brilliantly devises a series of big leaves on a tree to trickle water into a tiny stream that Guinevere can drink from. If she had forgotten that he was Richard Gere, she might have said, “Oh thanks, Lance, but I’m not such an IDIOT that I can’t stick my head up and open my mouth if I want to drink rainwater. Where’d you learn that trick, Modern Marvels?”

6:27 already? I've got to get ready to tape Seinfeld!

Upon getting Guinevere back, Arthur is so grateful to and impressed by Lancelot that he offers him knighthood. For motives vaguely implied, Lance agrees, and thus marks the turning point in Gere’s performance. He goes from walking around with a perpetual God-I’m-awesome smirk to a perpetual God-I’m-uncomfortable long face (excuse me, longer face) that he keeps to the end of the movie.

The first mission is to protect Lyonesse from Malagant’s army. When Arthur’s party makes camp, Malagant pulls off the goofiest, most ridiculous scheme outside an Aesop fable or a James Fennimore Cooper novel, and attacks the camp at night with soldiers disguised as sheep. Fortunately, great minds think alike, and Arthur’s already prepared an equally goofy scheme: setting a fake campsite, complete with scarecrow knights, so that he can trap Malagant’s men in the open and blast them from the treeline with burning arrows. He then sends in the knights in a pretty godawful action scene, the type you expect from a director best known for The Naked Gun, which is not exactly known for its sweeping drama. Lancelot leads the charge, of course, mowing through foot soldiers that apparently decided leather armor was more than enough for heated battle. Arthur takes the field, letting Malagant escape for no explicable reason, and there is much rejoicing.

"Oh, Lancelot, your face is so oblong!"

When they return to Camelot, Lancelot decides he’s put up with this noble life of service crap for long enough, and makes moves on the queen again. They have another heart-wrenching romantic scene alone in her bedchamber, arguing about whether they should uphold their loyalties or give in to their passions, and this time around, the latter wins, and the two kiss… at exactly the minute that Arthur walks in. Wow, the king walking into the queen’s bedchamber -- how could they have guessed? And boy, Arthur walking in on them kissing is sure a dramatic reveal. I know this is a PG-13 movie, and I don’t think this scene needs to be quite as… R-rated as the equivalent scene in the John Boorman movie, but this is a MOVIE FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Do something interesting!

Needless to say, Arthur is pissed. He wrestles with his emotions in that big, gray, Vodka Martini-softened brain of his, and decides that Lance and Guin need to face the law. Camelot law, even though Malagant needs to remind us, “I am the law!” every 15 minutes.

Harold and Kumar and 5,000 Other People Go to White Castle

They hold a public trial in the castle courtyard and… Holy crap, even the peasants are all decked out in blue! All of them! I thought colorful dye was kind of expensive in medieval times. I guess Camelot’s working class is either very well cared for, contradicting the “hard times” line in the opening text crawl, or they invited the inhabitants of Minas Tirith to the trial.

Unfortunately, Arthur and his people are complete freaking idiots, and leave the castle wide open for Malagant and his remaining troops, so they pour into the castle and put mini-crossbow men all over the ramparts. Malagant reminds us, “I am the law!” and demands that Arthur kneel to him and yield Camelot. Since Arthur’s got some minor confidence issues, wondering how he can ever bed Catherine Zeta-Jones if Julia Ormond is cheating on him with Curly McHorseface, it appears that he’s going to give up. But NO! He raises Excalibur and commands his knights and peasants to fight! And as Arthur is struck down by mini-crossbows and mini-trebuchets and mini-MOABs, his people--including those who are supposed to be on trial, dammit--start duking it out with Malagant’s men.

"I will destroy you and your puny little onion-reeking hamburgers!"

The music screams “Battle of Helm's Deep,” but the actual action is more reminiscent of the time a Klingon called the Enterprise a garbage scow to Scotty‘s face, with lots of random brawling all over the place, and lots of people running around for some reason, despite there being no shortage of enemies in the nearby vicinity. Of course, Lance and Malagant find each other in the middle of the fight, and none of the peasants or bad guys bother to disturb one of them by stabbing them in the back or something. Because you NEVER interrupt the hero and the lead bad guy when they fight in the middle of a big battle. Naturally, Lancelot gets kicked down, but Malagant takes his time finishing him off, giving Lance the opportunity to stretch juuuust far enough to grab another sword and get up again. He hacks into Malagant in a very PG-13 way, and the battle’s over.

In his final moments, King Arthur’s now cool with the whole trusted knight-and-queen cheating on him thing. Boy, I’m glad they cut down that bittersweet story of redemption that covered the last third of Boorman’s Excalibur, reducing it to five minutes of Lancelot cutting up mini-crossbow guys. Arthur entrusts Camelot to Lancelot, and I guess the rest of the knights are okay with it. Sure, he’s been a knight for about three days, and sure he betrayed the king, but at least he didn’t side with Malagant in the fight. And since Gawain, Galahad, Ector, Gareth, Percival, and Tristan are all off doing a junket in Paris or something, Lancelot’s probably good enough. And thank God. Arthur gets his funeral, Lancelot gets to boink Guinevere, and we get to eject the DVD so fast that it flies out and cuts the Green Knight’s head off.

THIS. MOVIE. SUCKS. It’s got the directorial flair of a Sci-Fi Channel original movie, the deft casting of a Schumacher Batman movie, and the originality of a bacon cheeseburger at a fast food restaurant. It doesn’t make even the slightest attempt to capture the feel of Medieval England, evidently terrified of putting its stars in less-than-pristine surroundings, and doesn’t really try for an idealized beauty, either. It’s just there. It ejects all sense of mystery and irony from the Arthurian legend, and give us a half-ass scowling traitor as the lead villain. What a waste. Whatever you think of the earlier Excalibur, or the later King Arthur, both those films recognized that there’s a bit more to the Arthurian legend than a bunch of longing glances between Lancelot and Guinevere.

It would be nice if the king could stay awake for one damn board meeting.

I’d recommend either of the two aforementioned movies, overwrought as they might be, if you want a pretty good King Arthur story. Hell, before you stoop to this mess, rent The Sword in the Bleedin’ Stone. Double-hell, Monty Python and the Holy Grail seems to care more about its source material than this movie, and it‘s galaxies more entertaining. I seem to recall a beat-‘em-up arcade game called Knights of the Round Table that was kind of fun, and it even had Percival in it for God’s sake. Maybe if you want to see Richard Gere and Ben Cross battle it out for the title of “Man With the Biggest Chin in Christendom,” you’ll find a reason to like this movie, but otherwise, avert thine eyes, Patsy.

1 comment:

Lùthien said...

I so much agree with you, and your review is so accurate. That so-called blockbuster explains nothing of the Round Table legend, the characters are desperatly hollow and uninteresting, and the part where Lancelot/Gere is leading the battle must be the worst slow motion in the whole movies history. Everything sounds bad, even Sean Connery looks like an old fool (and that is no habit to him). No more comment on Richard Gere: he is just as bad as ever (did he really take acting courses?). Damn it, the one who gave me this dvd is going to regret it dearly.