Ever notice how anyone who tries to defend Waterworld won't come out and say it was a great movie just not as bad as history remembers? Director Kevin Reynolds lets himself in for further faint praise with his new Tristan & Isolde, a period romance that's dry, straightforward, inoffensive and thoroughly unremarkable. It's a real Kevin Reynolds movie, full of men who wear long, musty robes while standing near large bodies of water. And the women who love them. And the strategically placed shafts of light that prevent their taut, entwined carcasses from disappearing into a morass of shadows and mud.
Ancient British legendry with just a hint of the WB, the movie revisits the oft-retold tale of Cornwall knight Tristan (James Franco), the angry orphan whose resistance of the Irish seems to meet an early end when he's felled in battle. After a hasty burial at sea, his still-viable body is found and nursed back to health by the doting Isolde (Sophia Myles), a tempting slice of Irish royalty in disguise. But their mutual passion is snuffed out by Isolde's enforced marriage to Tristan's uncle, Marke (Rufus Sewell), the leader who's been chosen to unite the fractious English tribes under a common banner. Jealousies fester, clandestine trysts are trysted and Franco gets to spend a lot of time favoring the horizon with that pained, distracted look he's been riding to no particular repute.
For a while, the movie is admirable in its resistance of megaplex histrionics. (The sword strikes are blessedly free of thundering bass-drum samples.) But the leaden pacing and the lack of compelling performances eventually make even the most hardened ren-fair geeks in the house tune out. By the time the aggrieved parties take up arms to decide the fate of love and comradeship on two shores, you'll be mentally reviewing your laundry plans. Not to mention ruing the irony that so many healthy young chaps are losing their lives to bring order to a land that, 14 centuries later, the Sex Pistols are just going to bust up all over again.