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A Knight's Tale (May 1/01)

Occasionally, one of the big-budget, over-hyped "summer" movies will provide more than just visceral, in-your-face thrills. Jaws, for example. And now, A Knight's Tale. Featuring a character named Geoffrey Chaucer (yes, that Chaucer), the film is rife with literary allusions and quirky dialogue that will no doubt baffle the MTV-generation but please those under the impression that PBS is the only place to catch intelligent fare.

Starring Heath Ledger as a squire named William, A Knight's Tale opens with the death of William's boss, a jousting knight. While William's two friends Roland and Wat (Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk) just want to call for help, William decides to assume the knight's identity and participate in a jousting tournament they were en route to. After speedily winning that competition, William decides that this just may be the ticket out of poverty he's been looking for. Of course, William cannot continue to pretend to be his dead master, so they enlist penniless writer Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) to create fake documents detailing William's royal history. More tournaments are won and William eventually winds up with an arch-nemesis, in the guise of the ruthless Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), who intends to steal away William's soon-to-be girlfriend, Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon).

A Knight's Tale has been written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who first helmed the gritty and unforgiving Payback. With his second feature, he's eschewed the vicious violence of Payback for a friendlier, more accessible story. In his anachronistic world, crowds sing along with "We Will Rock You" while waiting for jousts to begin, blacksmiths adorn their work with the Nike swoosh and royal heirs to the throne wear their hair in punk fashion, complete with purple highlights. But oddly enough, it never really seems out of place. Once Helgeland establishes the tone with the "We Will Rock You" scene at the outset, it's really no problem accepting the other inaccuracies. A dance sequence set to the tune of David Bowie's "Golden Years" is certainly a highlight of the film and will likely spawn renewed interest in that song.

Headlining the cast is, of course, Heath Ledger. Bearing a resemblance to a younger Mel Gibson (it's no coincidence these two were cast as father and son in The Patriot), Ledger's not just another flavor-of-the-month type, coasting only on his pretty boy facade. His William is initially just a spunky squire with a lot of drive, but as the picture progresses, he becomes more confident and even a little cocky. And Ledger never turns the character into an annoying, Luke Skywalker-esque whiner. As his two chums, Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk provide the requisite comic relief, but the real scene-stealer here is Paul Bettany as Chaucer. From his first appearance, when he's spotted "trudging" along (completely naked, mind you), Bettany takes this true-life historical figure and makes him his own. Chaucer's flamboyant speeches when introducing William to the crowd are certainly the highlight of the film, and Bettany has no problem spouting this tricky dialogue.

While Helgeland's script is always engaging and often quite humorous, A Knight's Tale suffers from overlength. At a running time of over two hours, the film should have been cut by about 25 minutes. As enjoyable as the characters were, there's just not enough plot to warrent such a long film. Perhaps Ledger should have pulled a Mel Gibson and re-edited the movie himself (as Mel did, with Payback).

Nevertheless, A Knight's Tale is surprisingly intelligent summer fare, when what usually passes for entertainment is as brainless as an episode of South Park.

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