Working with a script by William Monahan, director Ridley Scott certainly thinks it's time to examine that old-time religion.
Scott's Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven has all the ingredients of a heart-pounding action film: the buff man-of-the-people hero played by demi-hunk Orlando Bloom; the helicopter shots of vast armies of Muslims and Christians preparing to do blood-spewing battle during the 12th-century Third Crusade; and a sexy princess love interest (Eva Green) distracted from Balian's (Bloom) blacksmith pedigree by his puppy dog eyes and fascinating torso.
But despite the presence of some requisite action-film ingredients that made Gladiator a 2000 Oscar magnet, Kingdom of Heaven feels like a cheese soufflé that has collapsed in Scott's oven.
As in Gladiator, which set its death-tripping pace by establishing the hero's profound loss, Balian may be losing his religion following the deaths of both his wife and father (Liam Neeson). Balian travels to Jerusalem to take over his father's estate, bringing along his religious ambivalence and peacenik attitude.
In Jerusalem, Balian finds an estate of 1,000 acres crawling with a paradisiacal melting pot of Christians and Muslims. Immediately establishing himself as a real problem solver, Balian has the brilliant epiphany of digging a well, which yields immediate results in crops and lush vegetation.
Kingdom of Heaven is divisible into those who want to make shish-kabobs out of Muhammad's followers, and those, like Balian, who remember that God wants everyone to play nice in his house and try to find common ground (aka love for God, bravery, swords, etc.) with the Muslims, led by Saracen warlord Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).
The film's most distinctive feature is its refusal to depict Muslims as the hordes of swarming insects Scott made of the Somalians in Black Hawk Down.
Rather than the Arabs, the film's antiheroes are the warmongering leaders of the bloodthirsty Christians, Guy De Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), who are reminiscent of those T-shirts worn by Soldier of Fortune types, about traveling to exotic places, meeting new people and killing them.
When the bully boys provoke Saladin, poor Balian has to tear himself away from paradise and protect beleaguered Jerusalem from the Saracen armies.
And though the Christian warmongers may be jerks, Kingdom of Heaven saves its staunchest condemnation for those eternal whipping boys, the clergy, who function like the clueless officers in any war movie, sending the troops to their doom while they eat prime rib. The clergy are real passive-aggressive twerps, egging on the soldiers with a hearty "To kill an infidel is not murder!" and then imploring everyone, like some brat yelling "uncle," to convert (!) when defeat seems imminent.
Kingdom of Heaven feels driven more by a fear of offending and a fear of fanning the flames of Islam-phobia in any way. In its efforts to be PC, Kingdom of Heaven begins to exhibit signs of wishy-washiness and a lack of anything challenging or interesting to say about the Crusades, Balian or the roots of Arab and Christian enmity.
Despite all efforts to kick up a dirt cloud of excitement in several engaging battle scenes between the Muslims and Christians, Scott makes even those wild and crazy Middle Ages pale in comparison to all the killing and maiming going down in our own medievalesque Iraq crusade.
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