Arriving so soon after “A Knight’s Tale,” a much funnier commingling of medieval action and anachronistic attitudes, and the 25th-anniversary reissue of the classic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Black Knight” is a textbook example of too much, too late. Martin Lawrence puts the pedal to the metal, offering a surfeit of his trademark shtick — shucking and jiving, prancing and pratfalling, mugging and bugging out — with a borderline-desperate zeal that suggests a distressed awareness of reviews and B.O. returns for his last effort, the aptly titled “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” Fans who flocked to “Blue Streak” and “Big Momma’s House” might generate decent opening-weekend biz, but new pic isn’t likely to survive long while jousting against formidable holiday competition.
The latest and, quite possibly, least in a long line of pics loosely based on Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” comedy is nothing if not brisk when it comes to establishing high-concept premise. Indeed, director Gil Junger (“10 Things I Hate About You”), working from a script Darryl J. Quarles, Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow, devotes a scant seven minutes to introducing Lawrence as Jamal Walker, an underachieving flunky at Medieval World, a failing L.A. theme park.
After entrepreneurs announce plans to build a more lavish Castle World nearby, Jamal’s boss (Isabell Monk) tries to rally her employees to compete. But Jamal blithely disregards her claim that Medieval World provides valuable jobs for the inner city. In his selfish view, she should simply cash out and retire while he seeks employment at the new park.
Of course, this kind of character invariably receives a redemptive life lesson. For Jamal, the learning curve begins when he attempts to retrieve a medallion from the park’s fetid moat. There’s a blinding flash of light, a sudden shift in the space-time continuum — and Jamal is zapped back to Merrie Olde England, circa 1328.
It takes a while, however, for Jamal to realize he has time-tripped. When he meets and saves the life of Sir Knolte (Tom Wilkinson), a fallen-from-grace knight, he figures the drunken, bedraggled fellow is a homeless person.
Later, when he wanders into the domain of King Leo (Kevin Conway), Jamal mistakes the castle grounds for the spiffier Castle World. He also assumes the king, his fellow nobles, various courtiers and humble peasants are simply very good actors. They in turn misapprehend Jamal as “Sir Skywalker,” the Moorish herald of a nobleman engaged to marry the king’s randy daughter, Princess Regina (Jeannette Weegar).
Jamal remains blissfully unaware until he tries to put some smooth moves on Victoria (Marsha Thomason), a Nubian-born handmaiden who makes our hero fully aware of where and when he’s landed. While Jamal frantically struggles to make sense of his predicament, Victoria tries to enlist the time traveler in a revolutionary plot against the usurping King Leo.
“Black Knight” is mildly amusing in fits and starts, playing the fish-out-of-water setup for easy, predictable laughs. During a banquet scene, Jamal leads the court musicians in a spirited cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.”
Lawrence tries too hard, too relentlessly, and the effort shows. It doesn’t help at all that the writers didn’t provide (or, just as likely, Lawrence refused to play) a consistent character. At various points in the proceedings, Jamal is rendered as a trash-talking homeboy, a crafty tactician, a soft-touch Mr. Nice Guy, a natural-born swordsman and, most often, the kind of belligerent coward Bob Hope used to play in ’40s and ’50s comedies. This is a star turn in the worst sense of the term.
Displaying appreciably more restraint, the supporting players are effortlessly impressive while serving as straight men (and women) for the frenetic comic lead. They’re not trying to be good sports — they’re simply trying (successfully) to be good actors. Conway, Thomason and Vincent Regan are especially deft at playing for keeps in the midst of the comic high jinks. And Wilkinson even manages to infuse his thinly written character with welcome touches of poignancy, dignity and melancholy gravitas.
Tech package is slicker, and period detail more persuasive, than material merits. Ueli Steiger’s lensing and Leslie Dilley’s production design are major pluses.
For the record: Martin Lawrence is not the first African-American performer to star in a comic adaptation of Twain’s classic story. Whoopi Goldberg beat him to the punchline with “A Knight in Camelot,” a 1998 Disney-produced TV movie that, unlike “Black Knight,” openly acknowledged its literary source.