by David Cornelius
So. Ridley Scott’s back with another historical epic. And yes, “Kingdom of Heaven” offers nothing we haven’t already seen in “Gladiator,” “Braveheart,” “Troy,” “Alexander,” “The Last Samurai,” “King Arthur,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and any other recent film where a guy in period costuming gets his head lovingly caved in with a mace. But while there’s nothing all that new about “Kingdom,” Scott’s visual style and knack for epic storytelling carries us through, and makes his latest work passable, if not memorable, oversized entertainment.The story, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it’s probably not all that historically accurate, finds 12th century blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) mourning the suicide of his wife, when big shot crusader Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson) rolls into town and announces that he’s Balian’s long lost father. (It’s kinda like “The Princess Diaries,” but with more pestilence and less Larry Miller.)
"As far as the 'Braveheart'/'Gladiator' rip-offs go, this one's not shabby."
Balian, accepting his father’s legacy, turns out to be a fine and noble knight, always doing the right thing for his people. This puts him in good with the leper king (Edward Norton, hidden under a mask), his right hand man (Jeremy Irons), even some of the Muslims who share Jerusalem with the Christians. But it also puts him on the bad side with the heir to the throne (Marton Csokas) and an extremist (Brendan Gleeson), both of whom feel there is no room for peace, that the infidels need to be wiped out.
Ah, the infidels. “To kill an infidel is not murder,” we hear one character cry out, “it is the path to heaven!” And this is the movie’s ultimate point, that religious fanaticism from all sides has caused too much death for far too long. It’s a good point, a serious point, a point that is indeed relevant. And yet Scott and screenwriter William Monahan seem to feel that the best way to make this point is to be as basic and as naive as possible. We not only get to see examples of religious extremism gone wrong, but we get characters discussing it in great detail. This movie has symbolism out the wazoo, and when that runs out, it simply stops everything to explain itself over and over again.
This leads to moments in which characters discuss the difference between religion and faith, between doing what’s right and doing what your cleric orders you to do. We get wise priests who understand the difference, and ignorant priests who do not. We see heroes who wish for Jerusalem to be shared by all cultures, and villains who wish to hog it for themselves. This is fine for a while, but around the two hour mark, there’s the tendency to yell “we get it!!” at the screen. (And just in case we still don’t pick up on the story’s relevancy, a title card before the closing credits reminds us that Jerusalem remains a place of endless dispute. Duh.)
The film’s other down side: the length. “Kingdom of Heaven” runs two and a half hours not because the story demands it, but because, it seems, the filmmakers seem to have agreed that all epics must run at least that long, and if it’s any shorter, then padding must be added. This is a film that doesn’t clearly know where it’s headed, and so it rambles, stretching out scenes that go on far longer than necessary, repeating familiar material, always searching for the next Big Moment.
Mercifully, the Big Moments are enough to make up for all the movie’s faults. And not just the battle scenes, although those are really the main reason for watching; picking up where his “Gladiator” left off (and borrowing from all those movies that ripped him off since), Scott makes every obligatory war sequence an explosion of ugly combat, the kind of visceral experience which we’ve come to expect from such a picture.
But Scott also turns smaller, quieter scenes into big events, thanks to a solid eye for cinematic visuals and a production design team eager to deliver the eye candy. The film finds as much fascination in the backroom politics of 12th century Jerusalem as it does on the battlefield. The bickering, the conniving, the scheming, they all build up in all the right ways. (The best part of this comes with the arrival of the leper king, who hides behind a metal mask. These scenes are so visually compelling, with the strange blankness of the mask, that I began to look forward to them.)There’s enough here to make the film a nice, workable chunk of super-sized movie. If you can deal with the fact that it’s too long and too simplistic for its own good - that is, if you can deal with the idea of ignoring its shallow side - you’ll have a good time. “Kingdom of Heaven” is slick, well-made epic goodness. It’s not the best epic to try to rip off “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” but as movies along this line go, you could do much worse.
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originally posted: 05/09/05 23:54:47