1000 years ago, the Christians controlled the holy land of Jerusalem, and the Muslims wanted it back. Caught in the middle of the war is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a young, bitter blacksmith who learns suddenly that his father (Liam Neeson) is a knight in the Christian army, looking to find an heir to his title. Balian travels to Jerusalem to find faith and honor, but soon is overcome by the corruption in the armies, and the spineless nature of the new king (a dreadful Martin Csokas, “XXX”). Leading his own charge, Balian struggles to find a middle ground with the Muslims, before the conflict ends up costing the lives of everyone he holds dear.
Even before the first frame flickers in front of the projection bulb, there are already several things askew about Ridley Scott’s epic “Kingdom of Heaven.” First is the familiarity of the direction, since Scott took on a similar journey in the 2000 Oscar-winning film, “Gladiator;” while the two pictures aren’t brothers in plot or themes, the movies are unmistakably the work of the same vision. Scott runs “Kingdom” through a familiar obstacle course of vistas (snowflake and sand encrusted), bloodletting, and performances, all of which mirror the ambiance of “Gladiator” to a disconcerting degree. Scott can be a master stylist, but there’s nothing fresh to the look of “Kingdom,” which accentuates the screenplay’s already languid nature and design. This is the first time a “been there, done that” mood has permeated a Ridley Scott film.
The other nagging problem of “Kingdom” is its timing. Audiences have been barraged with ancient battle films for many years now, starting with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and ending with last year’s “Troy” and “Alexander.” “Kingdom” serves up even more visuals of computer-generated armies rushing to battle, flying arrows that blacken the sky with their numbers, and lunging catapults tossing firebombs in every direction. While the release timing isn’t Scott’s fault, his modus operandi for “Kingdom” isn’t a departure from what’s already been covered by other filmmakers, which lessens the power of the production, and disappoints an eye used to Scott’s occasionally inventive visuals.
The dense script, by William Monahan, doesn’t cloud the mind like Oliver Stone’s long-winded “Alexander,” but it doesn’t have much personality outside of the historical known quantities; this is due much in part to Scott’s hasty editing of the film to bring it down from nearly 200 minutes, to the current theatrical running time of 135. Even without prior knowledge of cuts made, “Kingdom” radiates missed steps, resulting in unease with the characters and, at times, mild confusion with the story. Balian’s romance with a queen (a wonderfully committed Eva Green, “The Dreamers”) is given a Harlequin romance novel atmosphere: immediately pairing the two up simply through immediate attraction and passing admiration. The same short-shift in attention is given to Balian’s enemies, making an already embarrassing performance by Brendan Gleeson (who shockingly resembles Sweetums from “The Muppet Movie”) all the more toxic and out of place. An already somber, colorless picture, “Kingdom” is hobbled greatly by this deletion of character and narrative foundation. I guess future DVD audiences will be the ones truly rewarded with Scott’s full vision (a “director’s cut” is planned).
In his first major leading role, Orlando Bloom demonstrates the urgent need for a non-period comedy to come his way soon. Bloom is all brood in “Kingdom,” rarely expressing anything above a cold stare, which the actor does very well. Balian doesn’t come across as the tortured soul he’s written as under Bloom’s performance, possibly due to Scott’s cuts. The actor has some great early scenes during a training sequence with his father and his murder of a nasty priest, and Bloom is supported by some reasonable talent (Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, and a masked Edward Norton appear). However, once the weight of the journey settles in, Bloom dries up and is bowled over by the size of Scott’s battle sequences.
Even under different release circumstances, I doubt “Kingdom of Heaven” would’ve connected properly. Yet, for the film to come out now, after many productions have already blazed this trail, makes the feeble triumphs of this forgettable blockbuster disappear without a trace.Rating: C-