The sword and the stoned

First Knight turns the Arthurian legends into a Hollywood botch job

In First Knight, he's as listless and unchallenged as ever. During his 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 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 decided to specialize in infomercials. His compositions do little more than showcase his stars. He spends $50 million on sets, costumes, and location shooting, then shoots half the movie in closeup through a telephoto lens, which focuses on actors' faces but blurs everything and everyone around them. 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 seems 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 its 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.

This is the kind of movie that assumes you'll follow it anywhere but doesn't invest enough wit or detail to make the trip worthwhile--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. It's possible that viewers are so starved for romance they'll love the film anyway. I hope not. Any film that takes as many emotional and narrative shortcuts as First Knight doesn't deserve love, or even respect.

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. And 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 fellow citizen 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--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. Columbia. Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Julia Ormond. Script by William Nicholson. Directed by Jerry Zucker. Opens July 7.

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