Surely, you joust. Knights rocking out?
You have to admire artists who take risks. In just his second directorial outing, Brian Helgeland took one whale of a chance by opting to infuse a period piece set in the 14th century with a boatload of anachronisms—including a 1970s rock 'n' roll score and costuming that was partly inspired by the Rolling Stones 1972 tour, as well as, apparently, the elegant Audrey Hepburn.
"A Knight's Tale" looks and sounds pretty darned good in Blu-ray. Then again, the transfers on previous editions were so good that it's always looked pretty sharp on DVD. There's a slight upgrade in Blu-ray, but it will take comparing scenes frame-by-frame to see it.
In the opening scene, "A Knight's Tale" explodes on the screen with a jousting contest enlivened by the raucous original version of "We Will Rock You," performed by Queen. As the music plays on, medieval peasants clap, stomp, and dance in modern fashion, even doing the "wave," as if they were spectators at a contemporary sporting event. From that initial moment, you'll know almost instantly if you're going to love this quirky film, or hate it. And if you look closely, you'll see more definition on the peasants' faces. The new Blu-ray features the original 132-minute theatrical release, not the extended version with twelve minutes added. And that's just fine. This film could have used a little more judicious editing anyway. Even at 132 minutes it feels long, and any number of scenes could have been shortened. But Helgeland was clearly in love with his topic.
You won't find it here, because there are no bonus features, but in one of the many extras on the Extended Cut, Helgeland said he saw these knights who traveled from tournament to tournament as the medieval equivalent of today's rock stars. He devised a film that would treat them that way, while also making this period of history come alive for contemporary viewers. That, he certainly does—though when he abandons all pretexts of creating a portal into the Middle Ages and opts for a thoroughly modern dance scene, Helgeland pushes the anachronisms to the max. That will bother some, while others will find in it the blend of humor and action that Helgeland intended.
But a word of warning to any Chaucer scholars out there. The Bard of Canterbury gets a make-over as one of two markedly anachronistic characters in this otherwise standard medieval tale of jousting knights and would-be nobility. "Geoff" (Paul Bettany) appears butt-naked on more than one occasion, completely stripped down by a worldly pardoner who seems to have doubled as the "muscle" in charge of collecting gambling debts. It's not the nudity that stands out, of course, but the loan-shark treatment and the contemporary spin Chaucer puts on his new job as herald, the one who's to announce his knight at every tournament. While the rest of the heralds conform to the medieval practice of simply announcing their knight's lineage, Chaucer can't resist the captive audience and the challenge to his powers of imagination and wordsmanship. With great flair, he introduces Sir Ulrich of Lichtenstein (Heath Ledger)— who's really the commoner Will Thatcher posing as a knight after the nobleman he was serving died, leaving the squires without income or food—the way a Madison Square Garden promoter introduces a professional wrestler.
The other largely anachronistic character in "A Knight's Tale" is the Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), who looks and acts flat-out contemporary, dressing at times like Audrey Hepburn, with broad-banded lampshade-style hat and a black-and-white dress that looks as if it could have come from the wardrobe closet of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Other times, she wears her hair like Cyndi Lauper circa 1987, crimped, streaked, and partially spiked in '80s punk style, with a gown that sports a plunging neckline and a side view of her breasts. She and Chaucer stand out the most as being contemporary characters who seem dropped, like Twain's "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," into an otherwise believable medieval scenario—which, along with the music, gives this a unique spin.
Ledger turns in a decent performance as the commoner who takes up armor and lance first to provide a meal for himself and his friends, but then in order to act out the part of the knight that he always dreamed of becoming as a young boy. You can change your stars, he's determined to prove, and as Sir Ulrich, with Chaucer's help, Will becomes a bit of a populist hero. The plot isn't terribly complex, however. It's structured like a sports film, with joust after joust leading up to one final showdown between Will and his nemesis (Rufus Sewell). Intercut are interludes that are part romantic and part showcase for his goofy entourage, which includes Chaucer, the rotund and quick-witted Roland (Mark Addy), the dense and fiery Wat (Alan Tudyk), and a slightly anachronistic female blacksmith and armor-maker named Kate (Laura Fraser). The entire film was shot in the Czech republic, and while the subscript announces different locations for the jousting contests in France, if every "stadium" starts to look the same, it's because there were just two jousting sets—one for Rouen, France, and the other to represent London.
Sewell plays the ignoble noble Count Adhemar with all the relish and flair of that chariot-racing Messala in "Ben-Hur." And like Messala, whose wheels were rigged with illegal spoke-shredding blades, the Count shows up to joust against Will/Ulrich with illegally tipped lances and trademark lances that have a clenched fist on the end. And that little anachronism ought to make "Top Secret!" fans laugh out loud, it looks so similar to the "anal intruder" gag from that film.
Video: I couldn't tell much of a difference in sharpness or color levels between the Special and Extended Cut editions, but the first thing you notice with this Blu-ray release is that it offers less color saturation, but with a truer overall look. When you compare the Extended or Special editions to the Blu-ray picture, it almost looks as if the early editions have a slightly yellowish to orangey cast to them. The Blu-ray colors actually look more natural by comparison, with less haloing. The presentation is 2.35:1, with the resolution a full 1920x1080p—or, as the packaging is fond of proclaiming, "pure picture . . . true to the original source master." And it does look great. The black levels could have been just a tad higher for my taste, but otherwise the picture was sharp and pulled in detail that you couldn't see on the previous releases.
Audio: Pure uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound really makes the lively soundtrack really thump and with energetic bass, a bright-sounding timbre, and great movement across the front main and center speakers. And what a collection of tunes! Songs include Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business," Rare Earth's "Get Ready," Thin Lizzy's "The Boy's Are Back in Town," War's "Low Rider," and David Bowie's "Golden Years." The six channel sound was made for DVDs like this.
Extras: The Extended edition was crammed with extras—11 featurettes on "The Rock Music Scene in 1370," "Sexy Armor & a Rock Band on Tour," "You Never Know What You'll Find in a Czech Prop House," "School of Hard Knocks," "Tournaments—a Cross Between Pro Football and Stock Car Racing," "The Marquee Event," "The World's 1st Sports Promoter," "Stories for the People," "The Rules of Love," "Heath Ledger Profile," and "A Director's Quest." Do you think it would have killed them to include ONE of them here? Once again, we get the single-layer transfer lament. There are zero extras here. Zip. Nada. Not even a making-of special and Queen music video from the first release.
Bottom Line: "A Knight's Tale" is fun and energetic, though the length works against the energy level at times, with some of the scenes begging to be shortened. In the end, though, it's the populist theme, the humor, the anachronisms, and the grand spectacle that save the day. This is one sensory-driven, offbeat adventure—especially in Blu-ray.