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A man on horseback -- with a point

'Knight's Tale' inventive but not always sharp

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Rockin' the jousting tournament

Impetuous youth, impossible dreams

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(CNN) -- "A Knight's Tale" is not your typical medieval story about knights in shining armor, ladies in waiting, and gallant deeds performed with the help of exotic wizards. This story, set in 14th-century Europe, does have some of those elements. But it also has a pounding sound track featuring music from Eric Clapton, AC/DC, Sly & The Family Stone and the rock group Queen; whimsical -- yet highly stylized -- costumes by Caroline Harris; and an attention span aimed directly at MTV viewers.

All of this combines to create a film with a decidedly 21st-century dramatic edge and attitude. It's an edge, and an attitude, that can get desperate at times.

Australian heartthrob-in-training Heath Ledger stars as William, a peasant boy who dreams of becoming a knight and of winning jousting tournaments across Europe. However, upward mobility was not an option in the 14th century. Knights were born, not made, and your station in life did not change from cradle to grave.

William, a servant to a mid-level knight, refuses to abide by the status quo. When his master suddenly drops dead just before a tournament, William seizes his chance. He pulls on the now ownerless armor and joins the games.

Rockin' the jousting tournament

At this point, the movie takes flight as William -- now "Sir Ulrich" -- enters the ring. The strains of Freddie Mercury singing "We Will Rock You" sets the tone with the prophetic lyrics "gonna be a big man some day," and our young hero begins his first battle. The sight of a huge field full of authentic-looking characters from the Middle Ages rocking out to Queen's music creates a delightful adrenaline rush as the two combatants charge each other on horseback, jousting sticks thrust forward.

Writer, producer and director Brian Helgeland (who won an Oscar for his "L.A. Confidential" screenplay in 1997) pulls out all the stops in this reinvention of an old standard genre. Even though the film's main action is one jousting match after another, Helgeland shoves enough disparate camera angles, swish pans and crunching armor into each match so the audience at least has the illusion of varied action, even if they aren't really getting it. Of course, you also get the feeling you're about to see beer banners in the background at any moment.

Ledger is extremely appealing in the leading role (despite the surfer dude blond hair). He's eminently believable as his character grows to meet each new challenge in his quest to win the hand of his lady love, Jocelyn, played by newcomer Shannyn Sossamon. He also handles the physicality of the role well, but he might want to consider beefing up a bit if he intends to be a full-fledged action hero. In his one shirtless scene he looks like a plucked chicken.

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Sossamon (who was reportedly "discovered" by an agent at Gwyneth Paltrow's birthday party in 1999) is mainly used as a coathanger for Harris' sleek take on 14th-century couture. She's certainly attractive, and given time and training -- combined with the right choices -- she could have a chance at the brass ring.

Impetuous youth, impossible dreams

William's three sidekicks are well cast. Playing William's medieval pit crew are Roland (Mark Addy from 1997's "The Full Monty"), a cheerful lout who looks no further than his next meal; Wat (Alan Tudyk from 2000's "28 Days"), a hot-headed loose cannon; and Geoffrey Chaucer -- yes, that Geoffrey Chaucer -- who is played by British actor Paul Bettany, and who introduces William with great fanfare at each match.

The four make an appealing team as they tempt the fates, since every time William wins he increases his fame and fortune and, therefore, his chances of being revealed as a fake.

Every adventure story needs a villain, and Rufus Sewell fits the bill. Sewell plays Count Adhemar, William's nemesis and main competition. On the tournament field -- and in the battle for the heart and hand of the beautiful Jocelyn -- Sewell strikes a nice (if standard) blend of haughty arrogance and smarmy charm.

At its heart, this is your basic tale of a youth discovering his full potential by believing in his impossible dreams. Helgeland has stuffed quite a few modern twists into a time period that Hollywood has done to death. "A Knight's Tale" has more in common thematically with "Days Of Thunder" (1990) than it does with anything in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales."

The results at best are highly uneven, but still interesting. At worst they are strained and repetitive. It all depends on your tolerance level towards gimmicks, and your desire level for something -- anything -- different. The main question is will this old story, dressed up with contemporary flourishes -- and featuring a nostalgic '70s soundtrack -- rock the world of the film's target audience, today's teenagers?

For now, only a wizard could know.

"A Knight's Tale" opens nationwide on Friday, May 11 and is rated PG-13.



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'A Knight's Tale' - official site

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