Film review: First Knight

Published: Thursday, Nov. 2 2000 6:42 p.m. MST

If it was more honest, "First Knight" might be titled "Lancelot Jones and the Castle of Doom." In fact, this latest retelling of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle has so many wild cliffhanger situations that you may expect the film's action to stop at some point as "To Be Continued . . . " pops up on the screen.

On the other hand, the only thing that seems more ridiculous than casting Richard Gere as Indiana Jones is casting Richard Gere as Lancelot — and here, you get both!

"First Knight" has him running around medieval England, rescuing Guinevere every time she is attacked or kidnapped — which is more than any cinematic heroine since "The Perils of Pauline."

It helps, however, that Guinevere is played by Julia Ormond ("Legends of the Fall"), who tries valiantly to build something from the superficial script, which sees her character as merely a feminist revision. It helps even more that Arthur gets a dose of dignity from Sean Connery, in what is essentially the third lead (despite his top billing). But it becomes apparent that Connery is stymied by his bland dialogue, and even he begins to look quite stiff, as opposed to regal.

"First Knight" is all turgid romance and impossible action. And Gere is all brooding and sullen as Lancelot, who roams the countryside without a care as to whether he lives or dies, earning meager ducats by demonstrating his talents with a sword. But when he gets an opportunity to rescue Guinevere for the first time, he knows he'll never want to rescue anyone else again. (And he won't have to, since she gets into enough trouble to keep an army of rescuers busy.)

Alas, Guinevere is off to wed Arthur, to unite their kingdoms and make a stand against evil Malagant (Ben Cross, who steals the show in scenery-chewing fashion). It seems Malagant is a fallen knight, who wants revenge against Arthur — and as much land and power as he can steal. And once you see where he lives — in a burned-out castle with all kinds of fiendish devices at hand — you'll understand why he covets Camelot.

As for the plot . . . Guinevere is attracted to Lancelot, who pursues her, but is loyal to the king to whom she is betrothed. And when Lancelot finally becomes a knight at the Round Table and Guinevere finally becomes the queen, the betrayal comes in the form of a kiss. OK, it's a kiss so forceful that Lancelot almost knocks Guinevere down, but that's all it is.

Meanwhile, there's no Merlin and no magic, no Mordred or Morgan le Fay, no knights who become real characters, no real depiction of what Camelot is meant to represent in the dream of King Arthur. What we have here is just another action picture, with the framework of the Arthurian legend and a distinctly '90s sensibility.

A number of supporting characters are introduced with flourish, but they soon disappear, never to be seen again — even when they seem important enough to resurface. This is perhaps most noticeable with John Gielgud, as Guinevere's right-hand adviser. He has nothing to do. (Alfred the butler gets more screen-time in "Batman Forever.")

There are a couple of fairly exciting set-pieces — the film is seldom boring. But screenwriter William Nicholson ("Shadow-lands," "Nell") has obviously watched too many other action pictures and read too little Arthurian lore. Meanwhile, director Jerry Zucker ("Ghost") is content to concentrate on downbeat, doomed romance, with upbeat music in the background.

In fact, if John Williams' booming, familiar "Indiana Jones" theme were to suddenly come up on the soundtrack, it wouldn't seem all that out of place.

"First Knight" is rated PG-13 for considerable violence, albeit relatively bloodless when compared to something like "Braveheart."

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