For almost five years now, Hollywood studios have beentrying to duplicate the success of "Gladiator"by making the same big-budget historical battle epic over ("TheLast Samurai") and over ("Troy")and over ("KingArthur") and over ("Alexander").
Each movie has re-imagined history from a modern, let's-keep-an-open-mindperspective and hewed to a shopworn formula in which the hero rallies hismen against great odds and for a greater good. He invariably leads theminto the same blood-and-mud war scenes, which are always shot in the samestaccato slow-motion that characterizes the chaos of combat but forgetsthe audience needs to be kept abreast of who is winning. The hero alsoalways finds time to romance a beautiful woman from another culture.
Aside from having different casts, the only significantvariations between these films seem to be 1) whether the hero was of noblebirth or came up from nothing to become a great leader, and 2) whetherthe battlefields are green and forested or brown and sandy. One thing mostof them definitely have in common is that they've bombed at the box office.
"Kingdom of Heaven" is more of the same. Thistime the hero is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a bland French blacksmith andgrieving widower (although you wouldn't know it by Bloom's narrow rangeof facial expressions) who becomes a knight of the Crusades and the defenderof Christian-occupied Jerusalem against a massive Muslim army that layssiege to get it back.
Couching the plot in real events, writer William Monahanlayers the film in exposition designed to show both reason and extremismon all sides of the conflict, but "Kingdom of Heaven" doesn'thave much to say on the subject of harmony and co-existence between faiths.The motives of its villains (primarily a power-hungry European knight spoilingfor a religious rumble) and the internal politics of Jerusalem's royalChristian court are vaguely drawn as well -- although it's clear the king(a festering leper played from behind a mask by an uncredited Edward Norton)prefers the fragile peace he's engineered in the region and is countingon Balian to maintain it when he dies.
But peace is not meant to be, and in the picture's thirdact director RidleyScott (who also helmed "Gladiator")delves into battle scenes, leading to the climactic siege and Balian'sseverely out-manned defense, not of Jerusalem's walls (he knows he'll haveto surrender the city eventually) but of its diverse and neutral people.
Full of top-notch special effects and creative combat strategy-- inexplicably devised by Bloom the blacksmith and designed to maximizecinematic thrills -- the historical accuracy of this combat finale, andthe events and circumstances surrounding it, are dubious at best. The filmis even less reliable when it comes to its hero's personal history. Thereal-life Balian, who did defend Jerusalem in 1187, has otherwise beenfictionalized almost beyond recognition -- especially when it comes tothe obligatory hubba-hubba with the generically pretty wife (Eva Green)of the villain (Marton Csokas).
Bloom's wallpaper performance, which certainly won't holdthe attention of anyone who doesn't have his pin-up plastered around herbedroom, doesn't do the guy any favors either. After his introductory scene,in which he impulsively kills a man with a red-hot sword (from his metalshop'sfire) for a slight against his dead wife, he just doesn't hold the screen.
Only the depiction of the Muslim sultan Saladin (GhassanMassoud) as a relatively magnanimous man of honor resembles historicalaccounts (and has any charisma), although his generosity toward the civiliansof Jerusalem has been embellished so as to sit better with 21st centuryaudiences.
With extremely realistic costumes, hair, makeup, and CGI-rendered12th century cityscapes, "Kingdom of Heaven" has no trouble bringingBalian's world to life. The movie's problem is in finding enough of a pulseto keep that world interesting.