Dir: Gil Junger. US. 2001. 93 mins.
After the commercial disappointment of his team-up with Danny DeVito in What's the Worst That Could Happen', Black Knight sees comedian Martin Lawrence returning to the kind of solo shtick that turned his 2000 vehicle Big Momma's House (another Regency Enterprises production for Fox) into a $100m-plus US hit. Opening in the US for the five-day Thanksgiving weekend and backed by a big ad campaign, this inoffensively broad comedy should be capable of a strong start at the box office. But with only some pretty feeble fish-out-of-water humour to compare to Big Momma's attention-grabbing central gimmick (the star masquerading as a 300-pound grandma), reaching the century mark seems very unlikely this time out. Equally unlikely is an improvement on Lawrence's recent track record in the international marketplace, where even Big Momma managed only a relatively modest $54m.
The set-up puts a black urban spin on Mark Twain's often-filmed A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. Lawrence's Jamal is a South Central homeboy from LA with a dead-end job at the dilapidated Medieval World theme park. When he falls in the park's fake moat, Jamal emerges in 14th-century England and stumbles into a castle populated by pompous courtiers, macho knights and crusty peasants. Before long, he finds himself involved with dissolute knight Sir Knolte (British character actor Wilkinson from The Full Monty) and pretty court maid Victoria (British TV actress Thomason) in a rebellion against the land's evil king (Conaway) and his henchman Percival (Regan, another British actor, last seen in The Messenger).
The script, co-written by Big Momma co-writer Darryl Quarles, doesn't give Lawrence much to work with. Jamal's initial confusion after his jump through space and time - he at first concludes that he must have wandered into Castle World, a new local rival for Medieval World - produces a few funny moments, but the situation is prolonged way past its comic usefulness. As Jamal attempts to curry favour with King Leo - and get close to Victoria - the film makes only moderately successful attempts to get laughs from the clash of cultures (the most successful has Jamal leading the court musicians in a rendition of Sly And The Family Stone's Dance To The Music). In its last third, the film comes dangerously close to turning into a half-serious romantic adventure, as Jamal and the rejuvenated Sir Knolte lead an ass-kicking attack on the King's castle.
In what was always going to be a one-man movie, the weakness of the script puts extra onus on Lawrence. To his credit, the actor invests enough energy in his portrayal of the likeable Jamal to keep things watchable and his talent for physical comedy sometimes provides the laughs that are otherwise missing. However, the film's apparent desire to remain family friendly - there's almost none of Big Momma's scatology or swearing here, and only fleeting sexual content - never really allows Lawrence to display the slightly raucous, good-boy/bad-boy persona which shows him at his funniest.
Prod cos: New Regency Picture
US dist: 20th Century Fox
Int'l dist: 20th Century Fox (exc Italy)
Prods: Arnon Milchan, Darryl J Quarles, Michael Green, Paul Schiff
Exec prods: Martin Lawrence, Jeffrey Kwatinetz, Peaches Davis, Jack Brodsky
Scr: Darryl J Quarles, Peter Gaulke, Gerry Swallow
Cinematography: Ueli Steiger
Prod des: Leslie Dilley
Ed: Michael R Miller
Music: Randy Edelman
Main cast: Martin Lawrence, Marsha Thomason, Tom Wilkinson, Vincent Regan, Kevin Conaway