The new Martin Lawrence comedy, Black Knight, is yet another twist, albeit an uncredited one, on Mark Twain's protean A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, one of the original fish-out-of-water comedy-fantasies. Was there an outcry for yet another redo? After all, Twain's 1889 novel, about a New England mechanic who wakes up in Olde England, has been plundered for years as film material.
But never has a remake exploited the obvious potential of a streetwise male urbanite stranded in the Middle Ages. In theory, Lawrence is playing Jamal Walker, who works at the crumbling Medieval World Family Fun Center. In practice, this being a star vehicle, Lawrence more or less plays "Martin Lawrence," the persona he has developed throughout his TV and film work.
The Medieval World Family Fun Center is a black-owned community business that doesn't look like much fun and sure isn't doing much business. Worse yet, its survival is about to be challenged by the nearby opening of Castle World, a glossy, corporate-funded franchise. Jamal is considering bailing on his longtime boss (Isabell Monk) and applying for work at the new place when he spots a glowing medallion in Medieval World's fetid, polluted moat. He reaches for it, he gets sucked underwater, and, well, big surprise, he emerges in a stream in 14th-century England.
Jamal, for no discernible reason and counter to all logic, assumes that the nearby digs of King Leo (Kevin Conway) are actually Castle World, and that its chronically unbathed residents are employees. And he doesn't seem disturbed by the fact that this new ghetto business seems to have only one black employee, Victoria (Marsha Thomason), a dazzlingly beautiful chambermaid. It takes a beheading (someone else's) to make him realize this is the real thing, but by then he's already become entwined in court intrigue. King Leo, we discover, has slain the rightful king and driven the queen into hiding. He is also marrying off his randy daughter (Jeannette Weegar) to a duke from across the channel.
Victoria is, natch, a leader of the rebels who are trying to assassinate the usurper and restore the proper monarch; Jamal's medallion is, also natch, the group's insignia; and Jamal must eventually teach them his new 21st-century fighting shtick in order to lead them to victory, yadda yadda yadda. It's not clear why the filmmakers have replaced Camelot and its well-known history with King Leo's court and its intrigues, other than to set up this hackneyed rebellion plot. It's not like the Twain estate is collecting royalties anymore.
Black Knight goes by relatively swiftly and painlessly, despite the completely ragtag nature of its construction, but there is not an inspired moment in it. You don't need the powers of Merlin to see nearly every plot development and every joke from miles away. There may be story differences, but all that's really new here stems from dropping Lawrence into the mix, smart-ass first.