OPENING TODAY; A “KNIGHT” TO FORGET

If you like Martin Lawrence’s shtick, then go. Otherwise, stand in line for “Harry Potter.”

Whether “Black Knight,” the feudal flashback comedy is better or worse than Lawrence’s last film (the mercilessly misbegotten and mercifully forgotten “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”) depends on your tolerance for manure — not the jokes, not the paper cutout characters, but an excessively realistic, widescreen, “here’s my close-up, Mr. DeMille” mound of manure.

Ah, but less on that later. Lawrence tones it down as Jamal Skywalker, a Los Angeles theme park worker who encourages people in the pursuit of selfishness (moral intervention alert!). While cleaning out the “moat” at Medieval Fun Center, he espies a shining medallion which sucks him into the polluted waters, and spits him back up in the year 1328.

Understandably, young Skywalker thinks he has just resurfaced at the new competition down the street, Castle World. He antagonizes the head of security (Vincent Regan) and plays along with his mistaken identity as a Normandy messenger bearing news for King Leo (Kevin Conway), until he learns from chambermaid Victoria (Marsha Thomason) that he has truly gone medieval.

The fatal flaw of “Black Knight” is that it can’t stay the kind of family fable it purports to be. A digestible family flick has broad-stroke characters who can carry at most two personality traits –here we have the evil king, the repressed feminist servant, the tarnished knight (Knolte, played by Tom Wilkinson) who must overcome his shame-induced alcoholism to help restore the overthrown queen to her glory. Bits of historical authenticity get tossed in, like Middle Ages-style dinner manners, and once in a while there’s merry-making such as the sing-and-dance number choreographed by Paula Abdul (straight up). The moments are all too rare, but nevertheless they are present.

Once director Gil Junger throws in horny princesses, beheadings, revolution, 21st-century cussing and humiliation by manure, willingly low expectations are dragged down even further. If the powers-that-be had spent as much time on the script as they did on crafting the fake dung — oops, sorry, messing with a Hollywood formula.

For a “Connecticut Yankee” scenario, “Black Knight” focuses not a whit on culture clashes (evidently no 21st century, South Central L.A.-to-feudal English translation needed) and concentrates more on Skywalker trying to maintain the scam as messenger and part-time court jester. Lawrence does manage to convey some charm, but as the fish out of water, he can only flop around so much.

Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at vchan@cctimes.com.

WHAT: “Black Knight”

STARRING: Martin Lawrence, Marsha Thomason, Vincent Regan, Kevin Conway

RATING: PG-13 (language, brief sexuality and scatological humor)

RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 35 minutes

WHERE: Opens today at area theaters

GRADE: C

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