Black Knight

Dec 5, 2001 at 12:00 am

A California homie in King Leo’s court? Ya’ damn straight. Black Knight just gets funky and funny with a classic more than a hundred years old: Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Here’s the nitty-gritty, Cliffs Notes version of Twain’s tale: A guy gets his skull cracked and wakes up in what he first thinks is an asylum full of inmates stuck in an eternal renaissance festival. Eventually, he accepts that he’s somehow been knocked back to the year of our Lord 528 — and manages to climb the medieval social ladder by just his wits to become “Sir Boss.”

Yankee is a sharp satire (in the Gulliver’s Travels, not the “Saturday Night Live” sense) alloyed with comedy and thrust through the heart of all that Twain saw was wrong with society. Broadway, Hollywood and network TV have dug the same story, but evidently felt that they had to blunt the message, producing almost a dozen sugary and risk-free versions with stars ranging from a crooning Bing Crosby to that Oscar-winning “wabbit,” Bugs Bunny. Martin Lawrence (What’s the Worst That Could Happen?) falls somewhere in between those two.

Lawrence is Jamal Walker, a vain, self-absorbed slacker from South Central L.A. who works at the Medieval World Family Center. Noticing a bejeweled gold medallion bobbing like the trash in the center’s moat, he can’t help trying to get his hands on it. He slips into the water and wakes up on a lakeshore of 14th century England.

Putting a little color in Yankee is nothing new (Keisha Knight Pulliam, the Huxtables’ adorable little daughter Rudy in “The Cosby Show,” played the Yankee role in a TV version). What is fresh is that Black Knight drops in just a pinch of Twain’s social commentary (but little of his plot) and manages to put some near tear-jerking melodrama into the mix.

Black Knight has some laughs, if not much else — Lawrence’s animated performance may be as funny as Bugs Bunny’s. This flick doesn’t have the classic Hollywood plot and romance of Bing Crosby’s version, though. But then Crosby teaches the court musicians a sleepy turkey trot, not Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” — and he doesn’t get to do the nasty with the king’s freaky daughter.

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E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].