Monday, January 1, 2007

Kingdom of Heaven


Heavenly Hell

I’ll be honest. The ‘sword and sandal’ genre has never been on my list of movies I look forward to seeing. When asked to review Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, I thought to myself: “But I’ve already seen Spartacus! Didn’t Scott have enough of this with Gladiator?” Then I looked at the credits and thought: “When will star Orlando Bloom get a part that doesn’t require him to wear a tunic?"

During the Crusades, Lord Godfrey (Liam Neeson) stops at a small village to ask forgiveness of his illegitimate son, Balian (Orlando Bloom, again a blacksmith). He also asks him to return to Jerusalem to help protect the king. Balian is then knighted by his father, and inherits his father’s mission: to protect the king and protect the people. Things get complicated when the Christians provoke the Muslim army and Jerusalem comes under attack. Abandoned by the other knights, Balian is left to rally the people and defend the Holy Land.

Production design is one of Scott’s strong suits (think Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator), and he delivers here as well-- this movie simply looks great. Costumes, sets and props all work together well to create a believable setting. Apparently this movie cost $140 million to make, and it’s all up there on the screen.

The special effects in this film are also awesome. I have a pretty good eye for spotting digital trickery, and I have to give this movie credit, it all looked pretty realistic. The wide shots of siege towers approaching Jerusalem supported by a massive Muslim army are very convincing. There is of course the obligatory virtual “helicopter shot” of the city (seen in just about every movie of this ilk) that spoils some of the effect for me, but this is quibbling. The effects guys should be proud.

In my opinion, the weakest link here is Orlando Bloom. While he does an okay job as Balian, his performance comes across as one note. His limited range (or perhaps William Monahan’s script) keeps us from relating to him. Surrounding him with great supporting actors (Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis and Brendan Gleeson) only makes him look more inadequate. I found it a bit hard to believe he could rally an army and inspire courage to fight overwhelming odds with his mousy looks and one-dimensional performance. Who would you rather follow into battle, Orlando Bloom or Russell Crowe?

Where the movie succeeds is in the military proceedings. The politics and strategy employed by the various armies is fascinating, and a pleasure to watch unfold (however brutal). At two-and-a-half hours long, I never felt bored, and everything was well-paced.

In the end, Kingdom of Heaven is a decent movie in this genre. I can’t say I’d want to see it again, but it’s probably one of the better sword-flinging flicks of late. On the other hand, go rent Spartacus!

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