The new Martin Lawrence comedy, Black Knight, is yet another twist, albeit an uncredited one, on Mark Twain’s protean A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, one of the original fish-out-of-water comedy-fantasies. Was there an outcry for yet another redo? After all, Twain’s 1889 novel, about a New England mechanic who wakes up in Olde England, has been plundered for years as film material, almost always with its thematic underpinnings of rationality versus religion stripped away. In relatively straight form, there was a silent in 1921, the 1931 Will Rogers vehicle, and the 1949 Bing Crosby musical (not to be confused with the Rodgers and Hart stage version). And, more recently, we’ve seen Twain’s hero reincarnated as an astronaut (in 1979), a contemporary kid (in 1995), and Bugs Bunny in 1978. Even the notion of an African-American being transported to Camelot is hardly new: Two TV-movie versions, in 1989 and 1998, starred Keshia Knight Pulliam and Whoopi Goldberg, respectively.
But neither of those exploited the obvious potential of a streetwise male urbanite stranded in the Middle Ages. In theory, Lawrence is playing Jamal Walker, who works at the crumbling Medieval World Family Fun Center. In practice, this being a star vehicle, Lawrence more or less plays “Martin Lawrence,” the persona he has developed throughout his TV and film work.
The Medieval World Family Fun Center is a black-owned community business that doesn’t look like much fun and sure isn’t doing much business. Worse yet, its survival is about to be challenged by the nearby opening of Castle World, a glossy, corporate-funded franchise. Jamal is considering bailing on his longtime boss (Isabell Monk) and applying for work at the new place when he spots a glowing medallion in Medieval World’s fetid, polluted moat. He reaches for it, he gets sucked underwater, and, well, big surprise, he emerges in a stream in 14th-century England — which is no more fantastic than the fact Jamal doesn’t seem to wonder why LA has been replaced by countryside as far as the eye can see, or that medieval theme parks are such a rage they’re overrunning South Central.
Jamal, for no discernible reason and counter to all logic, assumes that the nearby digs of King Leo (Kevin Conway) is actually Castle World, and that its chronically unbathed residents are employees. And he doesn’t seem disturbed by the fact that this new ghetto business seems to have only one black employee, Victoria (Marsha Thomason), a dazzlingly beautiful chambermaid (and, it is implied, a concubine).
It takes a beheading (someone else’s) to make him realize this is the real thing, but by then he’s already become entwined in court intrigue. King Leo, we discover, has slain the rightful king and driven the queen into hiding. He is also marrying off his randy daughter (Jeannette Weegar) to a duke from across the channel.
In what may be the single genuinely funny joke in the film, when Jamal is asked where he’s from, he says, “Florence and Normandie” — the intersection where, in 1992, the riots broke out after the Rodney King verdict was handed down. King Leo merely assumes him to be an emissary from the Duke of Normandy — though no one seems to wonder how he can be an emissary from both Italy and France, any more than they wonder why he has such a curious accent. It’s a gag bound to be far less amusing to non-Angelenos, no matter to what great lengths director Gil Junger (10 Things I Hate About You) goes to set it up.
Victoria is, natch, a leader of the rebels who are trying to assassinate the usurper and restore the proper monarch; Jamal’s medallion is, also natch, the group’s insignia; and Jamal must eventually teach his new 21st-century fighting shtick in order to lead them to victory, yadda yadda yadda. It’s not clear why Lawrence, Junger, and screenwriters Darryl J. Quarles, Peter Gaulke, and Gerry Swallow have replaced Camelot and its well-known history with King Leo’s court and its intrigues, other than to set up this hackneyed rebellion plot. It’s not like the Twain estate is collecting royalties anymore.
Black Knight goes by relatively swiftly and painlessly, despite the completely ragtag nature of its construction, but there is not an inspired moment in it. You don’t need the powers of Merlin to see nearly every plot development and every joke from miles away. The ending is pretty much the same as in the old Bing Crosby film and several of the other versions. There may be story differences, but all that’s really new here stems from dropping Lawrence into the mix, smart-ass first.