When they were looking for directors to take the chair for William Monahan’s epic ” Kingdom of Heaven “, they couldn’t have found a better director than Ridley Scott. As he proved with “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down”, Scott can do epic standing on his head with one hand tied behind his back. Indeed, Scott’s visual acumen is the main draw of “Kingdom of Heaven”, which portrays ancient Jerusalem circa 1184 as a majestic place of stone, brick, and overwhelming conflict where anything and everything is possible for the earnest and not-so earnest. If it fails in some areas (most notably its one-sided portrayal of its Christian villains), the film makes up with stunning cinematography and jaw-dropping combat sequences.
As the film opens, title cards helpfully inform us that Christians from Europe have been in control of Jerusalem for the last 100 years, and enjoy an uneasy truce with the Muslims that surround them. Led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the Muslims have 200,000 Saracens ready to ride into battle should war break out between the two camps. By the grace of God and the benevolent rule of leper King Baldwin (Edward Norton), a truce is in effect, albeit just barely. When he first reaches Jerusalem , the only thing depressed blacksmith-turned-Baron Balian (Orlando Bloom) wants to do is work the small piece of land given to him by his dying father (Liam Neeson) and live in peace. Alas, political machinations and a certain Lord’s need to be King lead to conflict with Saladin, and Balian is forced back into action.
Of course I’m over simplifying the plot, as “Kingdom of Heaven” takes a good 30 minutes to get Balian to the Holy Land, and then spends another 30 minutes setting up the politics surrounding Jerusalem and various character’s quest for power. Most notably the haughty Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who is married to the King’s sister, the alluring Sibylla (Eva Green), who almost immediately develops the hots, as the kids would say, for Balian, and vice versa. By the time the armies have gathered for the film’s first clash, a full hour has passed. And because Monahan’s script has painstakingly introduced all the characters and their motivations, all that’s really left is for Scott to orchestrate one massive battle scene after another, leading to the film’s final 40 minutes, which is basically one giant battle scene.
When all is said and done, ” Kingdom of Heaven ” will most be remembered for its breathtaking action, because frankly, the characters are lacking. Where the film drops the ball the most is in its portrayal of the Christian villains, most notably the cartoonish nature of Guy de Lusignan and his lackey Reynald (Brendan Gleeson, “28 Days Later”). These two should have “Eeeeeeeeeeeeevil” tattooed on their foreheads. The lack of subtlety gives one the undeniable impression that Monahan and Scott were going above and beyond to let people know their movie isn’t about “evil Muslims” versus “good Christians”. No worries there, then, as the only villains that ever appear in ” Kingdom of Heaven ” have gaudy crosses embroidered on their clothing.
There are some good performances from the veteran cast. Liam Neeson is gone from the film much too soon, while Jeremy Irons, as Jerusalem ‘s gimpy but steadfast Marshall , has too little to do, and his character, too, ends up disappearing before the final battle scene. Once again proving that he’s a brilliant character actor, Edward Norton, his face hidden behind a mask for the entire movie, delivers an outstanding performance as the frail, yet strong, King Baldwin. Eva Green (“Dreamers”) gives a sultry turn as Sibylla, although curiously her chemistry with Bloom seems to be one way — poor Eva is generating all the heat, while Bloom is just going along with it.
Which leads us to star Orlando Bloom, sans elfen ears and bow and arrow this time around, although he swings a pretty mean sword. Mind you, not that I entirely understand how a blacksmith could learn to fight with a sword so well and so fast (a couple of minutes worth of lessons in a forest translates into a fearsome sword slinger?), but maybe we’re just suppose to believe it. Or perhaps Balian used to be a soldier in a past that the film never bothers to relate to us. In any case, Bloom does well enough in the action scenes, although his subdue presence is sometimes a liability, especially toward the end when the character is required to get the troops all rah-rah for the big fight. The young man just doesn’t have the gravitas needed for the role.
If you were in a mood for some sword-slinging, head-chopping action and stellar cinematography, ” Kingdom of Heaven ” is your ticket. It doesn’t tell you anything new about the Crusades, except that those darn Christians were pretty screwy and not all that trustworthy, while those Muslims guys were pretty nice if only you didn’t go around slicing off the heads of their sisters and whatnot. At over two hours and change, the film nevertheless feels condensed, and William Monahan’s script suffers mightily from odious Christian villainy. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty decent epic, and certainly the script isn’t any more slapdash than that of “Gladiator”, but that’s another review.
Ridley Scott (director) / William Monahan (screenplay)
CAST: Liam Neeson …. Godfrey
Orlando Bloom …. Balian
Marton Csokas …. Guy de Lusignan
Eva Green …. Sibylla
Brendan Gleeson …. Reynald
Jeremy Irons …. Tiberias
Edward Norton …. King Baldwin
Ghassan Massoud …. Saladin