At the outset of "A Knight's Tale," signs are strong that we're going to be watching the first medieval rock & roll movie. That description seems about right for a film that opens with a circa-1400 jousting match set to the pounding rhythms of "We Will Rock You." Yet though the soundtrack of writer/director Brian Helgeland's ambitious trifle runs from Queen to David Bowie and back, the picture that accompanies it instead owes its irreverent mood and iconic strut to the World Wrestling Federation and its various offspring.
Cheekbone-rich Aussie actor Heath Ledger (The Patriot) plays William Thatcher, the cheeky squire to an aging nobleman who has a reputation as something of a jouster. When the nobleman dies quietly and unexpectedly, Thatcher seizes the opportunity (and the face-obscuring armor) to take the dead man's place in his next match. Thatcher wins, of course. After assuming a hastily invented identity, he embarks on the Middle Ages' version of an athletic career.
He's assisted by an itinerant storyteller he befriends along the way, an applause-loving scribe by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany). Eventually, Thatcher becomes embroiled in a feudal feud with another jouster, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), over the affections of the lovely Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon). In the meantime, he acquires an entourage that includes a great-looking female blacksmith (Laura Fraser); manages to resolve some childhood issues; and generally becomes a role model to serfs all over downtrodden Europe.
If you were one of those students who didn't habitually cut World History and English Lit, you'll find yourself confounded by Helgeland's habit of playing fast and loose with all the stuff you studied for midterms. None of the events he sets down could remotely have occurred within the film's time and place. (To wit: The peasant population is shown as constantly cheering Thatcher's unlikely ascendance. But history teaches us that it wasn't the noblemen of the time who suppressed the serfdom; it was the superstitious, fearful and ignorant serfs themselves.) If you did skip those classes, of course, such inconsistencies won't matter nearly as much as rocking out to cool tunes while the bad guys get whacked by those big sticks wielded by the neat dude on horseback and his pals.
Helgeland does work in some clever, hip in-jokes, including the appropriation of a Nike swoosh as a blacksmith's logo and the reimagining of Chaucer's tales as stand-up comedy. There's also the irony of injecting latter-20th-century liberation into the Middle Ages, arguably the most repressed era on civilized Earth.
Despite the gravity of its setting, this yarn is played strictly for laughs (and a little sticky-sweet romance). Parody, though, depends on its audience's familiarity with the original article, and Helgeland's dumbed-down version of the Middle Ages assumes we know nothing more about the period than its costumes. Once the lightweight fun-poking wears thin-- which it does about 30 minutes into "A Knight's Tale" -- you may well be laughing at the film instead of with it.