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Kingdom of Heaven (2005)


I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a dead sucker for big-battle hero pictures, but these days, movies like this are released every month. And coming from Ridley Scott, who is one of the real standard-setters for flicks of this ilk, I’m going into Kingdom of Heaven with high expectations: I want a hero who tugs my heart strings, a love story that moves me to tears, a villain who makes me seethe with hate, and action that gets my pulse racing.

Judging from his body of work, Ridley Scott obviously likes a good hero story, too. But, sadly, this, his latest epic hero film, is without one key ingredient: the hero. And as he’s the director and the producer of this disappointing monstrosity, he’s got no one to blame but himself.

The story begins in 12th-century France. Revered knight Godfrey (Liam Neeson) returns home from fighting in the first Crusades (there were eight) to recruit new troops and make good with his illegitimate son Balian (Orlando Bloom), only to find his lad mourning the tragic deaths of his wife and kid. When Balian’s father dies in battle trying to help his troubled boy out of the country, Balian is thrust into a world of knights, battles in the name of good, and battles in the name of God (which aren’t always the same). Suddenly, he must step up to be the leader his father was and expects him to be.

Bloom’s Balian is the archetypal Scott champion, a common man who rises to the duty of being the people’s general. Sound familiar? But Bloom is no Maximus; he’s a very pretty boy who more fittingly played the elf Legolas than a strapping knight who can swing a broadsword through four men. While Scott has banked this elaborately staged production on his lead, Bloom never quite fills out the part – a miscasting made all the more noticeable when Scott surrounds his delicate star with scores of big, strapping monsters in chain mail.

Weighing Kingdom down further is a gutless script by newcomer William Monahan, providing little in the way of an interesting or rational storyline but lots of pseudo-politics alluding to our modern-day semi-religious war between the West and Islam. Why not spend more time building our faith in Balian’s heroic aptitude, so that – when the already weak Bloom steps up to make his ‘rousing’ speech to the troops – we’re not left uninspired?

Screw solid character development — what if it’s action that you’re after? You may be a tad let down there, too. For the most part, the climactic battle scenes are derivative of stuff even Scott has done better. I’ll only defend two gory showdowns: one sword fight early in the film against two bands of knights, and the first daytime battlefield scene at the gates of Jerusalem, which involves buckets of hot oil.

Scott definitely went full tilt on the awe-inspiring CG recreations of the medieval Holy Land and fabulous costuming, and it’s often just dazzling enough to make you want to forget its flaws. But Kingdom just isn’t the larger-than-life, heartrending Crusades masterpiece we were praying Gladiator‘s director would deliver.

The two-disc DVD set includes a text commentary that discusses the history of the era and the production of the film, plus a number of extensive making-of features. A History Channel documentary about the movie (and its historical liberties) is also included.

Now there’s — get this — a four-disc set of the film, offering a director’s cut, comprising similar extras to the two-disc set plus a feature-length documentary about the making of the film, 30 minutes of deleted scenes, historical documentaries, storyboards, and much more.

Toothpicks up!