THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Martin Lawrence is undoubtedly a very funny guy. So why does he keep picking movies that are beneath his abilities? Black Knight is the latest example of this talented comedian selling out his gifts in favor of gimmickry. While certainly not the most painful or unfunny comedy of 2001, this is nonetheless a real disappointment. Last summer, 20th Century Fox sent me their Fall Preview press kit. Inside was a picture from Black Knight showing Lawrence getting jiggy in front of a room full of fourteenth century British folk. Something about that image made me think the movie could be funny. However, within ten minutes of watching Black Knight, I knew the filmmakers had no intention of doing anything clever or original with the premise.

Lawrence plays Jamal Walker, a worker at a Medieval theme park who finds a shining gold medallion in the moat he is assigned to clean. Reaching down to grab it, he is somehow pulled through time and space (the movie offers only the most halfhearted explanation at the end) and plopped into the Middle Ages. At first, Jamal thinks he is at a rival theme park across town. Watching a real beheading convinces him that he is not in Kansas anymore, so to speak.

Martin Lawrence gets jiggy in the Middle Ages in Black Knight
Jamal is mistaken for a messenger (don't ask) and accepted as a guest in the king's castle. There he meets Victoria (Marsha Thomason), one of the ruler's concubines. (When Jamal innocently asks for her number, she replies "Seven.") He also comes face-to-face with Percival (Vincent Regan), a kind of Medieval racist who makes continual snide remarks to Jamal. There is a story involving an attempt to overthrow the bad king and give power back to the deposed queen. If you've ever seen a movie, you can probably guess that perpetual screw-up Jamal discovers his inner heroism and leads the charge. He does this by teaching the revolutionaries fighting moves cribbed from football and professional wrestling.

Black Knight is not a movie about story, though. It is solely about its own premise - one of those "fish out of water" tales. And like the sloppiest of that genre's entires, it assumes that playing up the outsider angle is enough to get by. There is only one joke in the movie and that joke is this: Martin Lawrence makes black culture references in the Middle Ages. For example, someone talks about the king and Jamal starts talking about Rodney King. There are references to Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Sean "Puffy" Combs. The British look on in confusion as Jamal uses terms like "bling-bling" and "freak." And, of course, there is the scene in which he does some hip-hop dancing during a formal dinner.

I laughed a few times during the movie, but mostly I sat there amazed by how lazy it was. I think you could make a genuinely funny comedy with this premise. Black Knight doesn't have the ambition, though. It trots out all the cliches and obvious references, one after the other. This would have been hilarious as a 5-minute sketch on "In Living Color" or "Saturday Night Live." As a 95-minute feature film, it just sits there. The screenplay (which, incidentally, is credited to three writers) isn't even clever with the references. Is there really anyone left who thinks the mere mention of Puffy Combs is an occasion to laugh?

Black Knight is about as generic as comedies come. It is not a worthy vehicle for its star. Lawrence needs a role he can sink his teeth into. Although I didn't quite recommend Big Momma's House, I admittedly found great amusement in watching the actor morph into an obese grandma. Big Momma was an inspired idea. Jamal, on the other hand, is not a character worth playing. There's nothing to him beyond his hip-hop persona. This is the kind of role Lawrence can phone in, and that is exactly what he has done.

( out of four)

Black Knight is rated PG-13 for language, sexual/crude humor and battle violence. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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