By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005
WE KNOW we're supposed to be watching "Kingdom of Heaven," Ridley Scott's epic about the battle of wills between Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), a 12th-century French crusader charged with protecting Jerusalem, and Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the Muslim leader whose multitudinous army stands in force outside the holy city.
But as Balian and his people withstand the might of Saladin's fiery projectiles, siege towers and the usual computer-generated swarm of soldiers, it's hard not to think we're really watching "The Lord of the Rings IV: Legolas Defends Jerusalem."
Epics have rapidly become digitalized, live-action cartoons for the pre-parental, and there's little sign of abatement, so long as audiences remain resolutely young and determined to watch heroes their own age playing grown-up warriors. Heroes used to be greater and more imposing than the audience. Nowadays, they're slightly exaggerated versions of the dudes and dudettes watching in the audience. Even though director Scott and screenwriter William Monahan have assembled a thoughtful (if flawed) antiwar scenario about the religious divisions that pit one great people against another, they still have to reduce it to a mere backdrop for a boy toy with good hair and excellent backlighting.
Bloom's Balian is a blacksmith in France, who learns he's the illegitimate son of crusader knight Godfrey (Liam Neeson, these days a regular paternal figure in epics), whose chivalrous reputation is well known in the Holy Land. Monahan and Scott sure ratchet up Balian's motivation to go: His wife just committed suicide, which means she will remain in hell unless he redeems himself somewhere.
Oh, yeah, and he just killed and burned a man who taunted him about all this. When local forces come to apprehend Balian for murder, well, he has yet another reason to get the heck out of La Dodge. He takes a 65-second sword-training session from his father and a really big German warrior, and he's ready to get medieval.
Balian gets to the Holy Land and that one-minute tutorial turns out to have been useful. He is forced to slay a belligerent Muslim warrior, but he shows mercy to the warrior's companion, all of which reaches Saladin, whose own sense of chivalry is legendary.
When Balian gets to Jerusalem, he finds a city in which Christians, Muslims and Jews live side by side in nonaggressive harmony. Saladin shows no sign of invasion as long as everyone lives this peaceably. But there are bad forces within these walls, namely a group of Knights Templar under the charge of Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) and dastardly Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas, another "Lord of the Rings" grad; he was Celeborn). Predictably, they mess up a beautiful thing and Saladin is ready to take Jerusalem.
Guy is married to Jerusalem's schwingy queen, Sibylla (Eva Green), who makes eyes at Balian three seconds after he struts in. Now there's a Brad-meets-Angelina imbroglio waiting to happen, but Balian has a city to defend first. A dude has to work up a battlefield sweat then dither morally about hitting on royalty.
Bloom's presence in the movie is a red-carpet affair. Seasoned actors (including Jeremy Irons and David Thewlis) project appropriate deference as he parts crowds and wows extras. But the real star is Saladin, an Islamic hero of deep integrity. In the role, Massoud (a Syrian actor well known in the Middle East) is masterful and booms with the gravitas in short supply on the Christian side. To introduce an archetype like this to western audiences -- as the world weathers culturally and religiously demonizing times -- may have been worth this whole flawed movie. Too bad the story didn't just start with him.
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (R, 138 minutes) -- Contains graphic battle violence. Area theaters.