My Kingdom for a Heaven!

Ridley Scott has an incredible talent for making a world seem rich, vibrant, and real. His newest movie, “Kingdom of Heaven,” is a bold example: the shields of the many knights and crusaders in Jerusalem are dented and dirty from use, and battle scars are common among the many fighting men. The minor details throughout the background the hero travels in give the impression that this world was real, and not some fantasy backdrop for the plot to be displayed in front of.

Much like in Scott’s “Blade Runner,” which has a rich sci-fi futuristic world, the Jerusalem that Scott captures is another character in the movie. It has to be continually contended with, referenced and acknowledged. The players are truly trapped within the world, just as we are trapped in ours.

This creates a huge sense of identity with the characters. They have the same weakness that we do – an inability to control the elements and others’ schemes – but are more frequently at their mercy, and this made the world more present and poignant.

Nearly every performance in the movie is commendable, except for those of the hero and the leading lady. Even the crusaders killed in the first battle are rich and interesting. I wish the same attention had been given to the two most important characters in the story.

See, Orlando Bloom is a pretty boy. He is a lover, period. His talent in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy as the elf Legolas was hugely upstaged by his ethereal looks and the fan letters from 12-year-old girls the world over. Since then he has played off of this lover image continually. From “Pirates of the Caribbean” to “Troy” he has ignored the acting craft and relied on his looks and breathy voice to justify his presence onscreen.

This doesn’t seem be the case in the start of the movie, when Liam Neeson, his long-lost father, comes along and claims him. In the presence of such a masterful actor, Bloom seems to, well, bloom. His looks and inner thoughts are of a different caliber than in his last two movies, and I thought he had been freed from the trap of the lover.

But unfortunately, there is not nearly enough Liam Neeson in the movie. In his absence Bloom reverts back into the breathy hero that girls go atwitter over, and none of the supporting actors from that point on are sufficiently strong to carry the weight of the movie on their own.

Not that there aren’t notable performances, however. Jeremy Irons’ Tiberius and Ghassan Massoud’s Saladin were excellently performed, but they were counterbalanced by the horrendous Sibbyla (Eva Green). Her entire love story with the hero is clunky, and her annoying pseudo-flittiness does nothing if not detract from it.

Thankfully, the world itself is the main character. The blood-spattered battles are not gory, but hectically crowded and real. The desert is not a setting, but a place to be contended with. Scott’s masterful command of detail saved the story from its main characters.

The best part of the movie is the end, when we are treated to a complete re-enactment of medieval siege warfare. History buffs will love the clever tactics, and action fans will be treated to a battle that is not merely hack-and-slash with swords. This truly epic part of the movie justifies any other flaws; for the details, which Scott is so attentive to, are extremely present in the siege of Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, sieges drag on, seemingly without end, and the 20 minutes of the siege seem like as many days. With the rapid-fire action in the beginning promising a quick pace throughout, the dragging finish of the movie leaves it flat.

Scott’s newest film has an interesting relation to Bloom’s last movie, “Troy,” which was lambasted by some for showing the Greeks as villains. (They would rather that the invaders and pillagers of a sovereign nation be seen as heroes.) Identifying with the adversary of western civilization is risky in western cinema. Scott escapes this trap neatly by providing us with a hero who also is opposed to the fanatic Christians, personified in the evil Knights Templar, and presenting the Muslims as generally neutral. This clever tactic enables him to produce a movie that is neither pro-Muslim nor anti-Christian, but that squarely identifies who the villains are. (Hint: it isn’t the brown people.)

At the heart of the dispute are the fanatics. On both sides men want to simultaneously purge the land of infidels and avoid bloodshed. Scott draws some obvious parallels to the present day, and some unexpected ones.

The result is a movie of interest to historians, action fans and those who follow the latest Crusade in the Middle East. In broad strokes, the film is sometimes cheesy and often trite. But there are moments nearly divine where the devil is normally found: in the details.