If your summer ideals run to the "knight in shining armor" or "fair damsel" types, get a load of Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale. This Hollywood action-romance extravaganza is loud, obnoxious, overlong, obvious and a little hard to resist. Writer-director-producer Helgeland wrote the snappy L.A. Confidential, but directed the drecky Payback, and here we get a bit of both extremes. Helgeland is clever enough to bring some shading to what would otherwise be unbearably formulaic.
Helgeland relocates the "American dream" to 14th century Europe, where peasant William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) insinuates himself as knight Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland by becoming a champion jouster. The film is surprisingly earnest in many respects, despite its gleeful silliness (Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland?), but it's clear the story is partly Helgeland's autobiographical celebration of his own road from humbleness to Hollywood. While the message connects intellectually (the parable of climbing classes through arena sports still speaks loudly), the emotional efforts (mostly involving papa Thatcher) are seriously overcooked.
Succumb instead to Helgeland's dramatically reckless but hypnotic modern-day touches. William jousts to the tunes of Queen's "We Will Rock You," War's "Low Rider" and Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business," among others. Some of these conceits work better than others, to be sure, but by the time a medieval banquet morphs into a David Bowie-scored dance party, you'll at least give Helgeland props for his chutzpah.
Ultimately, the wish-fulfillment fantasies--including a mostly unconvincing romance between Ledger and novice actor Shannyn Sossamon--begin to plod, but there's much to admire before that point. The look of the film often impresses, with Czech Republic locations, Tony Burrough production design, and Richard Greatrex photography. Greatrex shot Shakespeare in Love, and there's no avoiding the impression that A Knight's Tale weds that film to Gladiator (or perhaps Any Given Sunday). Helgeland wittily riffs here on Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), who survives on wordplay and guile as he tags along with William and his wild bunch. Ledger convincingly carries the film, but Bettany steals it from him, as well as the conventionally cast buddy Mark Addy and baddy Rufus Sewell. The jousting scenes, though limited in their breadth, have a freshness and kinetic energy. File it under guilty pleasure, but I expect there'll be worse ways to get your summer movie fix.