Kingdom of Heaven

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/05/05 23:59:55

"Better than 'Troy'-but not by much!"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The new historical epic “Kingdom of Heaven” would seem to have everything going for it–the credits feature any number of highly talented people both before and behind the cameras, it contains a narrative that plunges viewers into a rarely-seen (at least these days) past era with a story that still has plenty of contemporary relevance and it has been shot in beautiful locations in Morocco and Spain. Most importantly, it has been directed by Ridley Scott, one of the few filmmakers working today who is completely comfortable with the expansive parameters of the big-screen epic–his films, such as “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “The Duellists” and “Gladiator,” have conjured up amazingly detailed past and future worlds and filled them with compelling plots, ideas and characters. And yet, despite all of that, “Kingdom of Heaven” is a peculiar disappointment because while it contains all of those elements, it doesn’t really have any clear idea what to do with them and tries to cover up that absence with a lot of sound, fury and familiar visual tricks. The result is 138 minutes of actors standing around reciting cheesy dialogue in the brief moments between unconvincing battle scenes–the very things that gave epic filmmaking a bad name in the first place.

Opening in 1184, between the second and third Crusades and 100 years after Christians seized Jerusalem, Orlando Bloom, fronting his first major film after appearing on the sidelines for “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the “Lord of the Rings” films, stars as Balian, a blacksmith grieving the loss of his wife and child. One day, the legendary Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) lumbers into town and announces that he is Balian’s long-lost father (“I loved her–in my fashion”) and offers to bring him along to Jerusalem to be at his side. Balian demurs and Godfrey leaves, though not before offering directions to Jerusalem that will be quoted for as long as goofy dialogue is quoted: “Go to where the men speak Italian–then go until they speak something else!” Eventually, Balian joins them and Godfrey offers various life lessons before being tragically killed in an ambush. It is especially tragic because, although we don’t know it yet, it means that the only character with any life and wit has just been rubbed out and we will no longer hear such deathless lines as “I once fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle.” (Neeson deserves the Oscar that he should have earned for “Kinsey” just for being able to deliver that line with a straight face.

Balian finally arrives in Jerusalem at the time of a fragile peace between the ruler of Jerusalem, King Baldwin (played under a mask and leprous makeup by an actor whose identity, like Gary Oldman’s in Scott’s “Hannibal,” remains hidden from most of the advance publicity and will remain so here) and Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the even-tempered leader of the local Muslims. However, the king is dying and while the next person in line for the throne, his sister Sibylla (Eva Green) is also interested in peace, an arranged marriage has made her the wife of the vile Frenchman Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas), a member of the Knights Templar who would prefer to pillage and plunder the Muslims at will. Balian and Sibylla meet and hit it off, mostly because they are the two prettiest people around, and King Baldwin and his advisor Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), seeing the perfect opportunity to maintain peace, offer to get rid of Guy and make Balian both Sibylla’s new husband and the future king. Balian inexplicably refuses and leaves Jerusalem, the king dies and Guy barely waits for the body to turn cold before initializing his plans to slaughter the Muslims for good. Of course, he botches things up, his troops are slaughtered and the Muslims begin their onslaught to seize back the now-defenseless Jerusalem. Just in the nick of time, Balian returns to whip the townspeople together in a desperate attempt to save the city and restore peace.

Obviously, there are any number of parallels between the story of “Kingdom of Heaven” and our current geopolitical situation. The problem with the film is that Scott and writer William Monahan have chosen to reduce centuries of unfathomably complex social, political and religious history into an insultingly simplified depiction that seems to have been designed solely to avoid potentially confusing or offending mall audiences. The major characters are either purely good and diplomatic (including Saladin, a move that may, now that I think about it, offend some viewers who will believe that all Muslims should be portrayed as monsters) or purely evil in the mustache-twirling tradition of Snidely Whiplash. Of course, one should probably not look for subtlety in a film that pays lip-service to the need for peace, yet lavishes most of its time and energy on extended scenes of brutal warfare that are served up with lip-smacking glee.

I wouldn’t even have a problem with that approach if the film offered up the kind of jaw-dropping spectacle that Ridley Scott’s presence would seem to promise. Instead, he seems content to give us generic battle scenes that lack any real coherence–it is usually impossible to understand at any given time who is doing what against whom. To make matters worse, Scott has decided to simply repeat the staccato cinematic style for those sequences that he previously used in “Gladiator” (and which he nicked from the opening of “Saving Private Ryan”). This is a shame because, as I said, Scott is usually one of the most visually impressive directors working today but the best that can be said about his work here is that it isn’t quite as bad as either “Troy” or “Alexander”.

Then again, nothing really works in “Kingdom of Heaven.” Most of the actors are wasted–Bloom may look pretty but he lacks any of the charisma required to play a character like Balian and Green, who definitely looks pretty, shows none of the fire or energy (among other things) that she displayed in “The Dreamers.” As for the better-known supporting cast (aside from Neeson, who knows he has the scene-stealing supporting bit and runs away with the film during his brief appearance), they all look like depressed actors who have signed on to wear uncomfortable outfits while spouting ridiculous dialogue (A priest advises someone about to surrender to the Muslims: “Convert to Isalam–repent later!”) without realizing just how uncomfortable or ridiculous they could get. Most importantly, I never got the sense while watching the film that I was learning anything about the subject of the Crusades and their resulting fallout. A good film could have educated as well as entertained but I actually felt dumber on the subject afterwards than I did going in.

I take that back–I did learn one thing in that aforementioned scene in which King Baldwin and his advisors offer Balian the hand of Sibylla, the kingdom of Jerusalem, the head of his sworn enemy and the promise of extended peace, all at no cost to him, which he refuses for no good earthly reason (which means that, by refusing, he also instigates the events that lead to the deaths of thousands of people). I learned that, to paraphrase that classic line from a film far better than “Kingdom of Heaven,” if you are asked to marry the gorgeous French girl, destroy your enemy, become king and foster peace throughout the land–you say “Yes!”

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