A period battle epic should be as simple as it is big. It should never flex its brow in thought, only its bloody bulging biceps, to strike a blow for instinctive cinema. Braveheart and Gladiator spring to mind, precisely because they have no mind. Couldn't be sillier. In Braveheart, historical veracity goes right out the window, along with that poor guy director Mel Gibson executes for being gay. Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning Gladiator may be packed with more authenticish decor, but it's not about history, it's about Russell Crowe's iconic coolness, which is even more galvanically jolting than Gibson's.
Calamitously, Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (which opens Friday, May 6, at the Metro and other theaters) tries to be all about history—the lull between the Second and Third Crusades, circa 1184, when Baldwin the Christian leper king of Jerusalem maintained a dicey peace with the Arab conqueror Saladin. Kingdom earnestly preaches on behalf of peace and cross-cultural understanding. (Can't we all just get along?) This is perverse and self-sabotaging, robbing the calls to combat of all their conviction. Instead of a clear collision of good guy and bad, we get a horrendously confusing mosh pit of quarreling factions, with good guys on the Muslim and Christian teams who maneuver to thwart the (Western) warmongers in their midst. A war film about pacifists is like a sex film about George W. Bush's Chastity Pledge for Teens.
Our hero is no man's man à la Crowe but a fucking elf: Orlando Bloom, who's pumped up a few pitiably stringy muscles since Lord of the Rings but still looks like someone Hilary Swank would KO with one punch in Million Dollar Baby. Kingdom's opening is pointedly like the poetical opening of Gladiator, which also needed to get its hero from snowflake-graced northern Europe to the blood-soaked sands down south. Conveniently for French blacksmith Balian (Bloom), an old Crusader (Liam Neeson) rides into town and says he's the father Balian never knew. Hence their road trip to the Holy Land.
Balian has a contrived motive for going: After his child's death and wife's suicide, the local priest needles him about her going to hell, so Balian stabs him. A Crusade is supposed to wash him of his sins. But he's obviously glad he killed the evil shitheel priest, and the whole point of his character—and the movie—is to indict and revile religious authority (unless it's Islamic).
But he has to wind up in Jerusalem, so he takes a few Luke Skywalker sword-fighting lessons from his pop, survives an abrupt shipwreck, and finds himself in the leper king's court, a place sumptuous with Ridley Scott set design and way too many characters. Some are admittedly cool: Edward Norton's bloodshot eyes look great behind Baldwin's silver leper's mask; Jeremy Irons sports a cute dueling scar as Baldwin's second banana; and David Thewlis' chronic nonchalance is just right for the Crusaders' doctor/confessor.
The Bad Guy Crusaders (Marton Csokas and Braveheart's Brendan Gleeson, made up to resemble Joe Eszterhas) keep defying Baldwin by slaughtering Muslims to provoke Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) into a climactic retaliation. But Saladin holds back. The movie claims that the second-greatest warrior in Islamic history is a Quaker at heart. It's his sad duty to reclaim Jerusalem, but ooh, he detests violence. Really, the Islamic characters are implicitly racist in their sentimental two-dimensionality. They're not characters, they're Christians' wishful thinking about how Muslims should be. I'm not sure where the Jews were at this point in history, but this movie's Jerusalem appears to have none.
The battle scenes are flaming lovely to look at—Ridley Scott's got a reputation to maintain. Nifty siege towers, boiling oil, catapults flinging fireballs, Saracen horsemen on the horizon as far as the computer can see. Flying forests of CG arrows followed by flocks of vultures feasting on the fallen. But none of it pulls you into the fracas the way Gladiator put you right there in the Coliseum, with the spiky mace in your face and the MGM lion on your quivering ass. It's a good siege, but not a great siege—Peter Jackson puts it to shame many times over in the LOTR trilogy.
And you couldn't have a less commanding commander than Orlando Bloom. The quarterback of my Ridgecrest Elementary football team had bigger balls (actually, he later joined the NFL). The moviemakers are so mealymouthed that Balian essentially rallies his troops with the rousing cry, "Try to stay alive so we can all surrender to Saladin and maybe he'll let us go home with our tail between our legs!" The goody-two-shoes persona of Bloom is appropriate for the part. What a pusillanimous pussy! If you put Gibson or Crowe on a scale opposite Bloom, it would catapult him right out of the picture. As a war hero, Orlando Bloom reminds me of the nickname Truman Capote's father gave him: Little Miss Mouse Fart.
If you think Bloom's star quality is a black hole, you should see his love interest, Eva Green of Bertolucci's soporific The Dreamers. She plays the reluctant wife of a Bad Guy Crusader, and wants to marry Balian instead—who virtuously refuses. George W. Bush's Chastity Pledge for Teens is sexier than Kingdom's love story and less stupid. Bloom represents an all-time testosterone low in the history of the Hollywood love god.
There really isn't any story in this historical hash, just excruciatingly endless exposition. And yet, for all its poky pace, Kingdom plays as if large and necessary parts were trimmed out, leaving lots of jerky transitions. Scott says his DVD director's cut will restore over an hour of footage to the current 138-minute version. It will be still more lovely than this often gloriously gorgeous go-nowhere saga. And it will still be bad.