is 1328. Or more precisely, ‘tis so in the overactive imagination of theme-park custodian Jamal Walker (Martin Lawrence). This would be the high-concept premise of Black Knight, in which A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Beverly Hills Cop collide. As the film opens, you see that Jamal is something of a perfectionist when it comes to personal cleanliness—he electric toothbrushes, flosses, cleans his ears, and plucks his nose hairs: in other words, medieval times, a pre-toilet paper era with a vengeance, is precisely not where Jamal wants to be.
And yet, here he is, not once, but twice. First version has Jamal at work at Medieval World, he cleans the “moat” and loudly expresses his discontent with the diurnal tedium, especially his boss-lady’s repetitious complaints about costs and competition. Second version begins when Jamal falls headfirst into that moat and wakes to find himself dumped back in time, in the “real” medieval England, emerging from a magical lake. Not very convincing, but who cares? The point is to see Martin act up, this time in front of folks wearing armor and unable to parse his homeboy slangin (or, as one new acquaintance calls it, his “unusual tongue”).
So Martin-as-Jamal emerges from the lake in his football jersey and sneakers, whereupon he meets ex-knight Sir Knolte (Tom Wilkinson, whose other current appearance, in In the Bedroom, is incredibly moving), currently homeless and drinking too much, having been run out of the kingdom run by tyrannical King Leo (Kevin Conway). At first, Jamal mistakes everything, imagining he’s at the rival theme park down the road, Castle World, whose bigger budget would explain why its cast and location look so realistic. Check those convincing costumes, powerful odors, and even the roasted scraggly rabbit that quite resembles “roadkill,” as Jamal astutely observes.
Leaving Knolte to his tasty dinner, Jamal meanders off to the castle proper, where he’s stopped him at the gate by a foul-looking guard: “Who be ye?” Jamal adapts instantly: “I be stompin your ass if you put your hands on me again!” Comical. The castlefolk think Jamal’s a messenger from France, bringing word of some Duke’s anticipated arrival, and being an agreeable guy, he plays along, calling himself Jamal Skywalker, from Florence and Normandy (his very own South Central street corner) and chatting up the king, who promises him the nocturnal pleasures of any maidens he might desire.
There’s only one guy who takes an immediate dislike to Jamal, and that would be the overtly racist knight Percival (Vincent Regan), who insists on referring to him as “Moor.” In order to fit in and show up “Percy,” Jamal works overtime to win Leo’s approval: he learns to ride a giant black stallion, makes Martin faces, leads the court in a vigorous rendition of Sly Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” beds the king’s randy daughter (by accident: “That white girl came on to me!” he defends himself), and makes more Martin faces. Much as he always has, Lawrence delights with his enormous capacity for rambunctious, self-deprecating physical comedy, and surely, no one is expecting a stretch beyond Lawrence’s usual fare. Even so, Black Knight, directed by Gil Junger (10 Things I Hate About You) and written by Darryl Quarrels (Big Momma’s House), is particularly uninspired, a series of gags strung together without much care for order or context. Watch Jamal flop about on that big black horse’s neck, save a poor peasant from certain death, or observe the king glopping his hand from roast bird innards to his own nose to a plateful of peas. Just one hilarious hijink after another.
Jamal is apparently fine with this discombobulation until he meets the lovely chambermaid Victoria (Marsha Thomason), who happens to be the only other black character in sight and who informs Jamal that Leo is in fact a dastardly sort. This point is made clear when Jamal witnesses his first beheading, an odd choice for a joke, to be sure, but there it is: Martin Lawrence grimaces when the head rolls off the platform right into his eager hands: “How do they make it look so real!?” he exclaims, just before he passes out. After that, Jamal wants out, at least until Victoria shows him her breasts. Then he starts to formulate a moral position, that is, to support a community uprising against the bad despot, rather than look out for himself alone. (Thus: character development.)
Said community is composed of ratty-tatty rebels who live out in the woods and plan to assassinate Leo in order to reinstate the good queen. She’s got her own problems, having been hiding out since Leo chased her off however long ago. For one thing, she’s such a godawful public speaker that her even her most loyal subjects cringe and try to walk off when she opens her mouth, and so she must call on Jamal to help her inspire the grubby throng to fight in her name. Jamal proceeds to “give ‘em the ol’ Al Sharp,” essentially a running together of jumbled references, from Rodney King to John F. Kennedy (“Ask not what you can do for your fiefdom…”). Now motivated, the peasants start training, in a knights’ boot camp montage, a lot like the one in A Knight’s Tale where Heath Ledger learns to joust and swordfight, to the tune of raucous James Brown. How down of them.
A battle follows: arrows flying, swords crashing, horses galloping, catapults catapulting, all in a scene so clunkily edited that you’re hard pressed to care who’s clobbering whom. Even with this clutter around him, the irrepressible Lawrence maintains a jolting vivacity and endearing sense of himself. Too bad that the rest of Black Knight doesn’t keep pace with his considerable energy.