First Knight

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/13/07 00:41:47

"Fairly yawn-worthy retelling of Camelot."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Women who chuckled at the movie version of 'The Bridges of Madison County,' in which the 64-year-old Clint Eastwood paired up with the 45-year-old Meryl Streep, will want to know about 'First Knight.'

In this umpteenth retelling of the King Arthur saga -- the first movie directed by Jerry Zucker since his big hit Ghost -- the 29-year-old Julia Ormond (as Guinevere) must choose between the 45-year-old Richard Gere (as Lancelot) and the 64-year-old Sean Connery (as Arthur). Poor Ormond has to gaze longingly into the eyes of men who, theoretically, could be her father and grandfather. Would American audiences accept a movie in which the 30-year-old Keanu Reeves must choose between the 45-year-old Streep and the 64-year-old Anne Bancroft? Talk amongst yourselves.

In John Boorman's Excalibur, Arthur had a few years on Lancelot, but the members of that romantic triangle were at least within jousting distance of each other's age. The triangle was also only part of the story. A born image-maker, Boorman caught us up in the dark enchantment of Camelot. Jerry Zucker goes for the lite enchantment of Harlequin paperbacks. Watching First Knight, I wasn't bored, but I wasn't particularly enthralled, either. Zucker started out as one-third of the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker team (or ZAZ), who collaborated on Airplane! and Police Squad. As Ghost and now First Knight prove, Zucker is as single-minded about making women cry as he once was about making guys laugh. This isn't versatility, exactly; it's closer to ambidexterous manipulation.

Richard Gere is laughably miscast as Lancelot, but he manages to be appealing anyway, unlike Kevin Costner's wet-puppy Robin Hood (and Gere, learning from Costner's mistake, doesn't attempt an English accent). Maybe what saves him is that Lancelot is a noncommittal hero -- he keeps saying he doesn't care whether he lives or dies -- and Gere gives a noncommittal performance, so we're not embarrassed for him. He seems to be doing First Knight as a lark, and we note how chipper he's looking these days despite the trouble with Cindy. But when Lancelot is supposed to drop his wanderer's cool and lose his heart to Guinevere, Gere still doesn't commit himself. Staring blankly at the lovely queen, he could be mentally composing his next Oscar-night speech about Tibet. And sometimes he's annoyingly smug. Harrison Ford's Han Solo got away with lines comparable to Lancelot's "I can tell when women want me," because Ford put a parodic spin on Han's cockiness. But when Gere says it, it just seems like narcissism. He doesn't need Guinevere, he needs a mirror.

The other two leads fare better, though they have their own problems. Julia Ormond, a British Snow White under glass, badly needs a contemporary role with some spark. She has delicate, expressive features, but in her two movies so far (Legends of the Fall was the other) she hasn't gotten to express much besides "I'm happy" and "I'm sad." (In both movies, she gets passed back and forth between guys, like a coveted baseball card.) I'd rather she didn't turn into another overhyped one-note Julia, because Ormond has some witty moments here when she's rebuffing the suave Lancelot. It's always good to see Sean Connery, who by now seems unimaginable without his imposing white beard (he's the only major movie star who's consistently bearded), and he gets his voice up near the end, when Arthur confronts his betrayers. But Connery seems to be in a rut; he's played too many lions, and most of his performance is perfectly fine and perfectly unsurprising. He was great as the mild bookworm dad in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade -- he needs more comic roles that tinker with his virile persona.

Jerry Zucker figures that what worked once will work again, and in First Knight he brings back his Ghost team of composer Jerry Goldsmith, cinematographer Adam Greenberg, and editor Walter Murch (who's terrific with the lightning-fast sword duels). He also brings back his Ghost sensibility. At the beginning, Guinevere is strong; there's real authority in the way she addresses the people of her land. But as the movie goes on she becomes passive and weepy. Zucker plays it every which way: Guinevere falls in love with Lancelot but doesn't consummate her passion; then Arthur, having caught them in a kiss and renounced them, forgives him just before his heroic death and instructs Lancelot to "take care of her." There's something sick about a Camelot movie in which the point of the great Arthur's death is to bring the lovers together in a guilt-free union. And if a film like this doesn't have Merlin or Monty Python, what's the point any more?

There's an unsettling trend towards chivalry in recent movies, both in period pieces like Rob Roy, Braveheart, and First Knight and in more contemporary films like Forrest Gump and Bridges of Madison County. In these movies, women exist to be rescued -- from death, from boredom, from themselves. Calgon, take me away! But the flip side of the fantasy of being whisked away and worshipped is paternal objectification.

When Arthur first meets Lancelot, after Lancelot has just run the lethal Gauntlet, the king offers Guinevere for Lancelot to kiss: "Your prize." That's what she is in 'First Knight,' and all she is.

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