‘Kingdom of Heaven’ shows there is life in the epic genre
Let’s get the important questions out of the way first. Here’s what most people want to know about “Kingdom of Heaven,” director Ridley Scott’s epic about the Crusades: Is Orlando Bloom ready to carry a film? Well, maybe.
Bloom did pack on about 25 pounds of sorely needed muscle, although if you blink you’ll miss his only shirtless scene. (Sorry, ladies.) And his character here requires more range than he displayed in his previous roles in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Troy.” But he does a more than adequate job considering his part is written more as a reluctant hero than as a larger-than-life warrior.
Next question: After the lackluster response to last year’s “Troy,” (underrated but still strong enough to pull in $135 million at the box office), the awful “Alexander,” an odd “King Arthur” and an uneven “Alamo,” could Scott resurrect the period epic and lift it to its appropriate stature? Even in these post-“Rings” days where everything epic will evoke comparisons to Peter Jackson’s benchmark trilogy, “Kingdom of Heaven” fares pretty well, thanks to a great cast, some stunning battle scenes, and a politically correct religious message that feels honorable but not manipulative.
Fans of director Scott (count me in) will appreciate his work here, though “Kingdom” won’t supplant his finest films, namely “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Alien” or “Blade Runner.” Most directors would love to have any one of these films on his resume. But credit must be given to Scott’s devotion to detail and character-focused drama, and his brilliant sense of casting which combine to allow the director to continue to expand his impressive body of work.
Bloom stars as humble blacksmith Balian, who grieves the loss of his wife by suicide. He is approached by heroic crusader Godfrey (the noble-as-ever Liam Neeson), who informs him that he is his father and requests that he return to Jerusalem.
After an all-too-brief training session and a bloody ambush leave Godfrey mortally wounded, a bit of “Kingdom’s” grace dissipates with Neeson’s premature departure. But Balian arrives in Jerusalem to find a city diverse in culture where Christians, Muslims and Jews live side by side, despite the undercurrent of warmongering zealots who plot to stir up the melting pot. That writer William Monahan strays from historical fact, and that the film doesn’t focus on the bloody Crusades are not bothersome issues.
There are a few thorny scenes that appear too coincidental — such as a shipwreck where Balian and a mighty steed are the only survivors. And there are storylines that are underdeveloped, including the romance between Balian and Sibylla, the Princess of Jerusalem (an underwhelming Eva Green). Every hero needs a fire to fuel his passion, but we’re never quite sure what anyone is fighting for.
Still, it takes chutzpah to pit Muslims and Christians as warring factions and do so without politicizing or dishonoring either side. In fact, the primary “bad guy,” the menacing yet dignified Muslim leader Saladin, showcases the talents of Ghassan Massoud, who gives the film’s best performance.
In the end, Bloom shows promise, Scott’s work still impresses, and the epic film lives to fight another day.
Rated R for strong violence and epic warfare.