So does Orlando Bloom really wear a chest toupee in Kingdom of Heaven? Beats me — since it appears that most of his much-discussed shirtless scenes fell to the cutting room floor before the film made it to theaters. According to press reports, director Ridley Scott found Bloom’s bedroom scenes with Eva Green (The Dreamers) “too shocking,” so quicker than you can say “special edition director’s cut DVD,” he trimmed them down to almost nothing.
Not that trimming the 145-minute snooze-fest that is Kingdom of Heaven was a bad idea; I’m just not sure Scott cut the right stuff — or enough of it. The other burning question — can Orlando Bloom carry a film? — is answered all too clearly (the answer’s no).
If this comes as a great surprise to anyone, I don’t know why. Look at the record: Bloom’s fine in a supporting capacity in the Lord of the Rings movies, where he’s mostly called upon to shoot arrows or stand off to the side looking decorative. He makes a good straight man to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Carribean. But he’s a positive embarrassment as the callow Paris in Troy, where he clings to his big brother’s leg while begging for help when the guy he challenged proves too much for him (a dubious path to action stardom).
Apparently mindful of this, Scott and first-time screenwriter William Monahan decided that healthy doses of adversity — and an attendant gloomy expression — would butch Bloom’s Balian character right up. To this end, they set him up with a dead wife (by suicide) and child (presumably not by suicide) before the movie even starts. If this wasn’t enough, a vile priest then steals the cross right off the late Mrs. Balian’s neck and later makes indelicate remarks about her burning in hell. This prompts Balian to run him through, set his own blacksmith shop on fire in the bargain, and run off to join his father, Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who’s on his way back to the Crusades.
Godfrey, of course, is the apotheosis of manly. Not only did he become Balian’s father by raping Balian’s mother (the script makes it sound like the 12th-century version of date rape), but he claims to have once fought for two days with an arrow through a testicle. Now that is macho.
Alas, it’s not long before Godfrey knights his son and promptly expires, leaving Balian with a title, a thousand acres of desert farmland and the task of carrying the film. So what does he do? Hook up with the Christians, who are holding Jerusalem in an uneasy truce with the Muslim leader, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud)? Nope. He spends his time putting in an irrigation system — presumably so Scott can prove his cinematic literacy by copying the climax of King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread. Exciting stuff, huh?
Of course, reality — or the movie’s version of it — intrudes, because there are those who don’t think much of peaceful coexistence with those Muslim fellows. Chief among this crowd are the Templar Knights, who are headed up by an ill-tempered Frenchman, Guy De Lusignan (played by Martin Csokas with all the conviction of a refugee from Monty Python and the Holy Grail). He’s also inconveniently married to Balian’s love interest, Sybilla (Green). His major tool is the nasty-tempered Reynald (Brendan Gleeson, in a performance best described as akin to John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli from Lord of the Rings after a heavy dose of speed), who delights in killing Muslims because, as he says, “I am what I am.” (He’s kind of the Popeye the Sailor of Christendom, I guess.)
As a balance, we have Sybilla’s sensible brother, King Baldwin (Edward Norton behind a variety of silver masks), who’s dying of leprosy (yep, there’s a money shot of the face behind the mask before it’s over). He wants to arrest and execute De Lusignan so that Balian can marry Sybilla and succeed to the throne of Jerusalem. But this is just too pragmatic for Balian, so he refuses to go with the plan, and De Lusignan becomes king. This scenario leads to the predictable result of getting the movie to its real raison d’etre: The siege of Jerusalem, where Balian can save the day — after a fashion.
The big battle is well done, with Scott throwing in every digital effect at his disposal. But that’s exactly what it feels like, and we’ve seen it all before and all too often. Worse, the movie takes what seems like forever to get to this scene.
Whatever its overheated, artsy flaws, Oliver Stone’s Alexander was a lot more human and exciting than Scott’s animated waxworks of a movie — no matter how many fireballs he lobs at Jerusalem or how much CGI blood he splatters across the screen.
At the end of it all, it’s not even clear what Scott was trying to do when he made this film. The evenhanded approach to the Crusades isn’t all that successful. The Muslims are pretty reasonable guys, and much of the film plays like a 12th century variant on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, with Balian succeeding because he earns the natives’ respect (Orlando of Jerusalem?) But Scott’s playing it safe in today’s political climate, and the whole intellectual core of Lean’s movie — the part that left no question as to who the interlopers were in Arabia — is missing.
Scott isn’t going there. His film lobs a few potshots at Christianity (the bishop of Jerusalem comes in for a lot of abuse), and his attack on Jerusalem might be meant to evoke the bombing of Baghdad. But he makes very sure to toss in a speech about how neither the Christians nor the Muslims really have a claim on Jerusalem (the Jews don’t seem to enter into this), then turns around and suggests that they both do. And then, to keep us from having time to consider this political doublespeak, he plunges into the battle. The movie flirts with ideas and then runs away from them, so ultimately, it’ not much more than a dishonest, spectacular bore. Rated R for strong violence and epic warfare.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke