Was Ridley Scott trying to make a medieval epic, or was he trying to remake Kevin Smith’s Dogma? That was the question I found myself left with as I shuffled rather disappointedly out of the theater away from the latest interminably long epic, Kingdom of Heaven. The much beloved Ridley it seems, was more interested in proving the evils of religion, than he was in telling a story. Even the fight scenes are perfunctory, or in some cases actually non-existent.
Kingdom of Heaven finds Orlando Bloom back in the saddle, this time as a blacksmith turned Crusading knight. The amazing thing about his transformation is that it happens after only five minutes of instruction. A few words about how to hold a sword from his newfound (and soon lost) father, and town blacksmith Balian (Bloom) becomes the bravest, most skilled knight in Jerusalem. Later, when Balian assures a priest that making men knights helps them fight better, you can’t help but wonder if he’s talking about himself.
Balian enters Jerusalem and takes over his father’s holdings. The city is ruled by a wise and benevolent Christian king, who in order to keep the peace gives both Muslim and Christian access to the holy city. The king alas, has a terrible case of leprosy and is about to drop dead. This is bad, since he’s surrounded by psychotic evangelical zealots who want to run out and slaughter every Muslim in site. It’s not just bad for the Muslims, it’s bad for slavishly devoted religious nuts as well, since they’re surrounded and outnumbered by thousands of Muslim soldiers. The Muslims are ruled by a man with an unpronounceable name. What’s important is that he was smart enough to hire DS9’s doctor Bashir (Alexander Siddig) as a lieutenant. He’s also wise enough not to listen to his own batch of over-the-top holy rollers.
Screenwriter William Monahan’s story quickly becomes not so much about Christians fighting Muslims as it becomes a story of reasonable, intelligent people trying to keep the God fearing wackos from getting everyone on both sides well and perfectly killed. Obviously Scott’s film has a message, one it focuses on almost to the exclusion of all else. Balian’s story itself is uninteresting and rather underdeveloped. Bloom is required to say very little, but when he does it sounds like he’s reciting cast off pages of dialogue from his character in the Lord of the Rings epic. The dialogue is bland and possibly stolen. The same can be said of the film’s penultimate siege. It bears a rather uncanny resemblance to the Lord of the Rings attack on Helm’s Deep, minus all the things that made that siege so intense and interesting. The movie’s most frustrating moment comes at the final siege’s conclusion, when the attacking Muslims have broken through the city’s outer wall and Balian prepares to make his final stand. The Saracens attack and the picture slowly fades out. That a massive fight for survival ensues is certain, someone has simply chosen not to let us see it. Thirty seconds later Balian walks out to surrender. This, we can only assume, must be the spot where Ridley ran out of budget. Surprising, since the movie looks like he was able to recycle much of the set from Passion of the Christ.
That’s not to say Kingdom of Heaven is a total failure. Though the battles are puny and unwatchable, the film’s colors are absolutely beautiful. It’s wonderful to look at, as long as no one’s swinging a sword. The cast is a bright spot as well, Bloom does the best he can with that stolen dialogue, and Eva Green certainly knows how to wear a nice dress. Jeremy Irons is gruff and gallant, the movie could have only been improved with more from him. The background characters are particularly stellar, David Thewlis (who ought to get more work) steals every scene he’s in, and Liam Neeson continues to carve out a rather nice career as Hollywood’s new default hero mentor.
The big problem is simply this: Kingdom of Heaven seems a lot like Ridley watched Lord of the Rings and thought, “how could I reuse these action shots to deliver an anti-religion message?” Indeed it is religion, not Muslims, not Christians, not conniving bad guys that is the film’s only real villain. While on a personal level I might applaud Scott’s attempt to show God as something much greater than the paltry, ceremonial, and often flawed trappings of religion, I’m not sure a derivative medieval battle movie is the proper way to do it. Or if you must do it, at least put some effort into the action sequences to help ease us into the movie’s bluntly packaged message. This is a film from the man who gave us Gladiator after all, extreme close-ups of guys randomly swinging swords at nothing do not qualify as battle footage.
If Ridley Scott can’t revive the sword slinging historical epic, then what hope is there for it? While Scott’s lingering skill keeps Heaven far away from becoming the abortion of Oliver Stone’s Alexander, it fits rather comfortably on a level just below Troy and above King Arthur. That leaves the movie keeping pretty lowly company, and we’ve a right to expect better from one of Hollywood’s A-list directors.