The Sword and the Stoned

First Knight, a new effort from Ghost director Jerry Zucker, purports to tell the tale of King Arthur's ill-fated marriage to Lady Guinevere -- a young English noblewoman who fell madly in love with the aging king's most trusted knight, the virile, reckless Lancelot. The film makes hash of the Arthurian legends, which wouldn't matter so much if the picture weren't inept on every level.

The tale has been cast with three weirdly disinterested stars: Julia Ormond as the refined yet feisty Gwen, Sean Connery as the wise, weary Arthur, and Richard Gere as hunky Lancelot (who's been reconfigured for modern tastes into yet another variation on the forest-prowling, blade-swinging, mane-tossing, homily-spouting Man of Nature). The bad guy is Malagant (Ben Cross), a disaffected ex-Round Table knight who lives with his band of evil followers in an abandoned castle that looks like it was constructed from the mudflaps of trucks. While the three leads fiddle around with each other, Malagant burns their houses down.

Because this is an expensive Hollywood movie, "liberties" have been taken with the story. Unfortunately, they're liberties that make the choices faced by the characters considerably less dark, painful, and complicated than they were in the real Arthurian stories. And William Nicholson's script resolves those choices in insultingly cheap, contrived ways. That is, when they're resolved at all: Whenever the main characters are poised to take a stand on an issue and suffer the consequences, Malagant barges in from nowhere with his band of black-clad toadies. And unlike the source myth, this version has an improbably inspiring, all's-well-that-ends-well finale. Does anybody go to a movie based on the Arthurian legends to be surprised by the ending?

Richard Gere's performance seems to have been squeezed in between trips to the hairdresser and calls to his agent and accountant. He runs like a wimp, and the clunky way he swings his sword suggests he passed on combat classes in favor of pillow-fighting with kids at a day-care center. But a lack of physical conviction is the least of his troubles. Gere is so appallingly self-infatuated that even the most delightfully purplish romantic dialogue oozes stillborn from his mouth. When he looks into Guinevere's face and declares his love for her, his expression doesn't say, I will love you forever. It says, Hey, are you gonna eat the rest of that cheeseburger?

Casting him as Lancelot was a mistake from the start. Gere can be effective playing 20th-century alienated loners, but as a romantic warrior of Arthurian stature, he's a zero; it's tough to believe Gere could be in love with anyone but himself. His performance is a bag of pseudo-Method tics: the I-Know-You-Better-Than-You-Know-Yourself squint; the smolderingly pursed lips; the snuffling half-laugh that signals a difference in worldview; and of course, the patented Ain't-I-Just-The-Livin'-End? strut, which he seems to have learned from watching syphilitic pimps hold court on Hollywood Boulevard. The transparent way Gere grooves on himself suggests not Lancelot, but Fonzie. It's sad when a once-promising movie star decides he's too cool to act.

Julia Ormond fares better, but only because she's stuck in a reactive part, and Gere's mind-blowingly inappropriate line readings give her plenty to which to react. But she has another problem, and it's more daunting: The old-fashioned plot requires Guinevere to be repeatedly placed in jeopardy, but the scriptwriters, who are too cowardly to make her a straight-out pawn of fate, toss her a spunk bone now and then before returning to business as usual. This is the kind of movie in which the heroine escapes a would-be rapist by shooting him in the groin with a crossbow, then reacts with flustered, Old Hollywood primness when the muscular hero forces an unwanted kiss onto her lips two minutes later. If a movie wants to tell a politically incorrect story, it should go ahead and do so, with energy and invention and without apology. All this postfeminist pussyfooting around isn't just anachronistic -- it's a drag on the plot.

Sean Connery is just a drag, period. Can anybody remember the last time this man actually acted in a movie (as opposed to puffing out his chest, strutting around patriarchally, and smiling and frowning with rueful, crinkly-eyed wisdom)? Granted, he's a screen legend A one of the last of the hard-living, rough-loving tough guys, a man so inherently sexy that he doesn't need hair to make women swoon A but the last time anyone checked, he was still alive. Casting him in films like The Presidio, Medicine Man, Just Cause, and First Knight is tantamount to stuffing him and mounting him and hanging a sign around his neck that reads, "Sean Connery: Icon." Ever since he won a supporting actor Oscar for The Untouchables, he's been offered (and has gladly accepted) one starring role after another that trade on memories of his greatness without actually giving him anything demanding to say or do.

In First Knight, he's as listless and unchallenged as ever. During his allegedly heartbreaking lover's quarrel with Guinevere, he ought to have such betrayal and rage in his eyes that the very sight of him rips our guts out. But his declaration of disillusionment comes off as no more than a mild scolding, as if, instead of catching his wife in flagrante with his favorite knight, he had entered the royal loo to discover somebody had left the toilet seat down. There's nothing in his performance (except for the fact that he's Sean Connery) to suggest why so many men fought and died on his behalf (or, for that matter, why he'd make a convincing substitute teacher, let alone the king of a vast and troubled realm).

Last on the list of incompetents is Jerry Zucker, who would probably make a great director if he specialized in infomercials. His compositions do little more than showcase his stars. He spends $50 million on sets, costumes, and locations, then shoots half the movie in closeup through a telephoto lens, which focuses on actors' faces but blurs everything and everyone around them. As a result the film looks flat and washed-out and boring; it might as well be taking place on a ranch in Orange County. Even the special effects are substandard; a matte shot of Gere and Ormond plunging over a waterfall could have been snipped from an old episode of "Land of the Lost."

Despite its visual clunkiness, the picture might have been a guilty pleasure anyway if Zucker had the faintest idea how to move the plot along or articulate the emotional predicaments of his characters. But scene after scene drags on and on, leading nowhere; supporting characters are introduced with great fussiness, then disappear for a good hour or more; agonizing choices are prepared for but never actually made; and massive battle sequences flash across the screen in a disconnected blur of flying arrows, glinting swords, lurching horses, and dying knights whose fates can't move us because their faces were never matched with names or personalities.

First Knight assumes you'll follow it anywhere but doesn't invest enough wit or detail to make the trip worthwhile. It's the kind of movie that backs itself into narrative corners, then gets out of them by magically painting a new door on the wall and sneaking right on through. Late in the film, after being routed, humiliated, and marked as a despised enemy of King Arthur, Malagant somehow barges into the main square of Camelot with five dozen men in tow, interrupts an important public ceremony, takes the entire Round Table hostage, and declares himself king. The moment has no dramatic power because you can't figure out how this incredibly conspicuous baddie managed to get inside Camelot in the first place. The answer is that he got there because the plot needed him there. The scene's execution suggests that getting into King Arthur's sacred city is no more difficult than entering the lobby of a branch bank to make a late-night ATM withdrawal.

Your reaction might mirror that of a jaundiced city dweller hearing a neighbor complaining about leaving his front door unlocked while shopping for groceries and returning to find the house robbed. Anybody who doesn't care enough about a treasured property to bother protecting it A whether that property is a shining city or a centuries-old melodramatic myth serving as the basis for a major motion picture -- never deserved it in the first place.

First Knight.
Written by William Nicholson; directed by Jerry Zucker; with Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Julia Ormond, and Ben Cross.

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