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Tristan the Knife

A clumsy, violent romance may make you crave Shakespeare.

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Over the centuries, the legend of Tristan and Iseult has fueled the derring-do of King Arthur, aroused Richard Wagner's operatic thunder, driven poets as diverse as Shakespeare, Tennyson and Edwin Arlington Robinson to the heights of passion, and helped stock the back streets of Manhattan with companies of leaping Jets and Sharks. The complex cycle of tales, largely from Celtic sources, has inspired at least two dozen previous movies. Now the secret lovers of old are back on the big screen — in a sword-clanging, skull-bashing war epic that probably will appeal more to Ultimate Fighting fans than to students of medieval myth. Castle and forest are under constant, fiery siege in this bombastic Tristan & Isolde. Forbidden romance plays second fiddle.

Co-producer Ridley Scott planned to direct the film himself in the late '70s (he went for Alien instead), but that task has now fallen to Kevin Reynolds, the man who gave us the fiasco Waterworld a decade ago and the umpteenth version of The Count of Monte Cristo in 2002. Reynolds' vision of cinematic drama combines plenty of casual violence with the occasional makeout scene — the Dark Ages bloody in fang and claw but decorated with golden-tressed maidens who never smudge their mascara or rumple their brocaded frocks.

The beautiful young lovers of legend have taken so many forms over the years that there's no use arguing with the approach taken here by screenwriter Dean Georgaris (The Manchurian Candidate — 2004 version). This Tristan, portrayed by Spider-Man co-star James Franco, is a traumatized orphan who saw his father, a tribal baron, murdered by the marauding Irish. He grows up to be one very tough customer with a mace or a broadsword, even though his delicate good looks suggest a young Warren Beatty. Isolde (the gorgeous British starlet Sophia Myles), only daughter of the cruel and devious Irish King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara), has issues of her own — not least the death of her beloved mother and her father's intention to marry her off to a crude, bullet-headed thug who's the size of a defensive tackle. But Isolde is as independent of mind as Tristan, and they can't help falling for each other — despite the considerable political differences of their families.

As ancient poetry, honor and international intrigue would have it, though, she eventually has to marry the Briton king — Tristan's best friend. That leads inevitably to adultery. While King Marke's rough-and-ready soldiers are tearing into their suckling pig and swilling big goblets of wine, Tristan and Isolde are usually grabbing a quickie under the old Roman bridge outside the castle. And that can only spell trouble once a couple of the rat-faced traitors at court catch on to their trysting.

The movie's ferocious, if sometimes cheesy, battle scenes are more impressive than its romantic interludes, largely because Georgaris's grasp of language leaves so much to be desired. There's something to be said for modernizing diction and streamlining old style, but when the most profound utterance the heroine can manage is "Why long for things if they're not meant to be ours?" you may find yourself longing for the poetic splendor of Romeo and Juliet. Visually, the movie is often compelling, thanks to the rough period reality captured by cinematographer Arthur Reinhart. Isolde and Marke's night wedding scene, complete with flaming barges, is especially beautiful, and the final assault on King Marke's castle is as gruesomely thrilling as anything Scott came up with in Kingdom of Heaven. In the end, though, the filmmakers strike a bad bargain between action and myth: In their obvious attempt to shoo everyone into the tent — romantic and roughneck alike — they don't serve either end of the spectrum very well, unless the vision of our hero slinging the bloody severed head of an enemy from drawbridge to moat is the one thing you long for.

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