Tuesday, November 4, 2008


The grisly spectacle of blood splattered medieval era warfare in "Gladiator" director Ridley Scott's swashbuckler "Kingdom of Heaven" (** out of ****) overshadows the less-than-compelling 12th century chronicle about an obscure French blacksmith who attains fame as the guardian of Jerusalem. Set during the second crusade to the Holy Land where European Christian knights have clashed with Muslims for occupation of the famous city, this lavishly-produced but tedious combat epic lacks a virile, charismatic hero, because leading man Orlando Bloom of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy projects little in the way of authority. Not only does elegant but inexpressive Bloom appear wholly miscast, but also he gives such a low-key performance that you cannot work up much enthusiasm for him when he plunges into battle. Meanwhile, newcomer Ghassan Moassoud doesn't qualify as a villain in the conventional sense of the word. As the Muslim leader of the opposing forces, he behaves more like a static figure head, giving us little to get angry about toward him. Therein lays the ambivalence of the "Kingdom of Heaven." The hero isn't heroic enough, and the villain isn't hateful enough.

Far and away better than either Oliver Stone's disastrous "Alexander" or Antoine Fuqua's "King Arthur," "Kingdom of Heaven" isn't nearly as enthralling as Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy." British director Ridley Scott and freshman scenarist William Monahan (also British) seem to have bitten off more than they can chew in this elaborate, serious-minded, but ironic commentary about the Middle Ages and the hypocrisy that the Church wallowed in with their crusades to occupy Jerusalem. Parallels between what occurred in the so-called Holy Lands back in the 1100s and the current unrest in Iraqi are inevitable. Interestingly, Scott and Monahan display more sympathy for the Islamic world than for the Europeans, perhaps in a gesture of political correctness to atone for the sins of Europeans and the Catholic Church. Indeed, like last year's East meets West horse opera "Hidalgo," "Kingdom of Heaven" clearly espouses revisionist sentiments. Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Ladin might enjoy this impartial depiction of his countrymen. Imagine what might have happened in a Middle-Eastern Alamo, and you've got a fair idea what to expect from the "Kingdom of Heaven." In fact, "Kingdom of Heaven" reminded me of those westerns from the 1930s and the 1950s where a few good white man struggled to save the noble American savage from the depredations of scalp-hungry Caucasians.

The sprawling saga opens in France in the year 1184 after a battle weary knight, Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson of "Batman Begins"), has left his knights back in Jerusalem and set out to find the son that he never knew. Godfrey's illegitimate son turns out to be a humble Gallic blacksmith, Balian (Orlando Bloom of "Black Hawk Down"), in mourning over the death of his wife. Balian's spouse committed suicide after their first-born died. When Godfrey rides into Balian's village, the gravediggers are preparing to bury Balian's wife. A shady priest (Michael Sheen of "Underworld") steals the crucifix from Balian's dead wife and takes Godfrey to meet the blacksmith. Not only does Godfrey seek Balian's forgiveness for impregnating and abandoning his mother, but also he asks Balian to accompany him back to the Holy Land. Initially, Balian refuses. Later, when our hero discovers that the priest stole his dead wife's amulet, an enraged Balian slays him with a sword still glowing from the furnace. With the local authorities hot on his trail, Balian rides after Godfrey and joins him. Principally, Balian goes to Jerusalem, because Godfrey has assured him that he can obtain remission for his wife's suicide as well as his own murderous deeds.

Had Scott elicited the performance from Bloom that he got from Russell Crowe in "Gladiator," "Kingdom of Heaven" might have been more entertaining. Indeed, every shot of Bloom casts him in a heroic mould, but the young actor delivers a performance that consists more of posture than passion. Several other flaws afflict this film. First, "Heaven" moves at a leaden pace. The first act deals with our hero's initial encounter with the father he never knew. Liam Neeson blows everybody off the screen during his small part at the outset, while a scar-faced Jeremy Irons as the Marshal of Jerusalem towers over everybody else in the second half. Second, "Kingdom of Heaven" has too many characters clutter up the screen, and the story is hard to follow. Unless you're a medieval scholar, you going to have difficulty keeping track with what is going on. When Scott choreographs combat scenes, he can do no wrong. He provides us with enough geography so you don't get disoriented in all the fighting, unlike similar scenes in Oliver Stone's shoddy "Alexander." Clearly revisionist in sentiment, William Monahan's show-both-sides screenplay makes the Muslims more heroic than they have ever been, while it shows the Christians knights are racist, warmongering fanatics out for the spoils of war rather than the salvation of Godly deeds.

Ridley Scott stages several explosive battles with such virtuosity that you may forget about the reasons for the crusade. While the battle scenes are nothing short of excellent, the climactic Moslem attack on Jerusalem suffers by comparison with a similarly staged fray from "The Two Towers" with its monumental onslaught against the cliff fortress at Helm's Deep.

Several good actors languish in supporting roles, such as Brenda Gleeson of "Lake Placid" as an unrepentant scoundrel whose shaggy mane has turned blood red from all the helpless Muslims that he has slaughtered with extreme prejudice. You won't be able to recognize William Norton of "The Score" as a character called the King Baldwin IV who rules Jerusalem. Called the Leper King, Norton wears an ornate mask and stands between the rabid Europeans and the peaceful Muslims.

Clocking in at 145 minutes (reportedly with a longer version due out on DVD at 220 minutes), the "Kingdom of Heaven" is far, far from heavenly.

No comments: